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Fatherhood, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Father’s Day

June 18, 2021
poppa

By Shirley Dees

We’re going to visit James’ dad again. Before we leave I manage to squeeze a few moments alone in the bathroom of the duplex James and I rent and hang my head over the cheap, cushioned toilet seat, the kind that keeps your ass from hurting while you’re doing your business, and try not to puke while James stands outside the door. The timing of this year’s trip is a real bitch. He’s been dead for ten years, and every Father’s Day, James and I drive out to the cemetery to stand next to his headstone with James’ Poppa and talk about nothing. I never met him, but since I started dating James six years ago, I tag along.

“Leah, you about ready?” James is in a hurry. That’s what all of this is, really. A dreadful hurry.

“Can you give me a skinny minute?” I am surprised to find I can open my mouth without vomiting. Things are looking up.

“A small one. I hate to make Poppa wait.”

I stand up and move over to the sink. I study my face for obvious hints of morning sickness and add a touch of makeup. I don’t want his grandfather to be put out, either, so I try to hurry. “Is your Poppa feeling good enough to drive today?”

“Larry is taking him,” James says. His voice comes through the bathroom door like it’s worn down by hammers. I give myself one last scan, one last breath to steady this awkward and hurried day, and open the door.

“Okay, let’s go.” I walk by quickly without giving James the chance to get a real look at me. I am running out of time to tell him about the baby. I love him, which only makes all of this more complicated. He pulls the car keys off the hook hanging by the backdoor as I throw my purse over my shoulder. I feel him behind me, staring at the door, doing his yearly hesitation.

“James,” I begin, “we don’t have to go if you don’t want to.” He grabs the door handle to pull it open.

“It’s Father’s Day, Leah. You know I have to go.” Before I can ask again, he’s outside, feet crunching the gravel as he walks to his Ford Ranger. “Come on,” he says.

Every year, I try to cruise through this day with a level of indifference to make it all sort of just disappear, but every time I see the scars on the back of James’ head, that indifference melts into protective anger. I want him to know he is the one in control now. But I’ve learned not to push the issue. I offer to stay home in his seconds of hesitation by the backdoor, just to remind him the option is always on the table, but he always declines, stating it’s his duty to go. After all this time, I don’t really expect anything different anymore.

I climb into the steamy, black truck we share to get to and from work, each of us alternating with co-workers and carpooling when we can. We never drive it more than fifteen miles in a day so this is the truck’s longest journey every year at 60 miles, and I wonder how much longer it will last. James always says we’ll drive it until the wheels fall off, but I don’t think we can make it until then. This truck is twenty years old and suddenly too small. I crank the window and let the air hit my face, praying to God I don’t have to throw up on the way there.

Pretty soon we’re pulling out of town and the annual tour of my boyfriend’s childhood horrors begins. When he first told me about the abuse, it rolled off him the same way it does now. Ritualized. The Dairy Queen they met at for his dad’s public visits. The house where his dad used to live with Larry, an old friend and now Poppa’s neighbor, and the place James went when his dad was finally allowed overnight custody. This house was the one with the stairs whose pointy edges lead down to a wooden floor. The stairs and floor that birthed the scars on the back of my boyfriend’s head. He points them all out, every time. I’ve come to see them as his demons, evilness that must be excised regularly to keep them away, the reason for all this hurried dreadfulness. There must be a better way to heal, for everyone.

The heat-scorched Texas earth zips by as we cruise down the highway at the fastest speed the Ranger allows: sixty-three miles per hour, which means it will takes us an hour to make the trip. This is easy math that I keep in my mind to help make this day seem simpler, but one look out my window at the speeding ground and my head spins.

“We’ll stop in McKinney and get a bite to eat, that okay?” he asks like this isn’t what we always do. Normally, the stop in McKinney is the highlight of the day. They have this burger joint where the burgers are so juicy, they soak through the paper that lines those red, plastic baskets. The French fries are cooked in oil and bubbled until they’re perfectly golden and crispy, the ketchup salty and tangy on the lips. Food so good it makes you want to slap your granny. But today, just the thought of those greasy burgers makes me want to dry-heave, so I push it away and curl my legs underneath my hind-end.

James glances at me from the side. “What’s up?”

“I don’t know, maybe we can try some place else this time.”  I look straight ahead, keeping my sour face out of view. A car screams by us on the left, a red convertible of some type. I’ve never bothered much with learning car brands and models, but sometimes I’ll take a guess at what it is to impress James. He whistles as the car switches back into the right lane, ahead of us.

“Damn, must be nice,” he sighs. I give a little silent shout of praise to the owner of the sport car for pulling James’s attention off my lack of an appetite. I know we’ll probably stop there and eat anyway, because there is nothing else in McKinney. Maybe I can get away with scarfing a small quarter-pounder and puking in the restaurant’s commode before we get back on the road.

“Your Poppa still going out to the cemetery every day?” I ask.

“He doesn’t like driving much anymore so he only gets out there when Larry can take him.”

“I didn’t realize he wasn’t driving anymore,” I say, pausing a moment to let a passing thought linger. “What’s he going to do with that truck of his?”

“The man’s got to get to the grocery store and what not. He’s just not driving anywhere long distance.”

“I wouldn’t call fifteen miles to the cemetery long distance.” Immediately I recoil, guilt pinching at my insides.

“Yeah, but to get there he’s got to get on the highway.”   

“Oh, I didn’t think about that.” I realize I’m coming off like I’ve been waiting for Poppa to slide his big toe inside the old folks’ home to transfer the title to his vehicle into James’ name.

“You want to take his truck?”

“Well, no I just . . . I don’t know.”

“That’s Poppa’s vehicle, Leah.” James’ voice takes on that condescending tone that sends tethers of defensive coils up the back of my neck.

“I know.”

“Man ain’t quit driving more than a month and you’re already thinking him some kind of invalid.”

“No, James.”

“Claiming his property.” James shakes his head and disappointment spreads over him along with the crinkles that set into the corners of his eyes when his temper has run out of fuse.

“That’s not it at all.” I keep my voice calm in hopes to steer him back towards sanity.

“We have a truck, Leah.”

“I know.”

“We ain’t ever had a problem with it. But my Poppa gets old and you start seeing money bags.”

“I wasn’t thinking about taking your Poppa’s truck, James.” His knuckles tighten on the steering wheel and I know I need to get control. “You know me better than that. I just don’t want him giving it away without talking to you about it first. You know how some people will take advantage of Poppa.”

“Hmm,” he keeps his eyes on the road but I both hear and see his suspicion. He is trying to keep his temper in check and keep his demons tightly roped inside. “Okay, just sounded like you had other intentions.”

“Please don’t put words in my mouth.” Another car zooms past and there goes his focus, just like that. A little flame of frustration still flickers away in my mind but I swallow again to try and put it out. My temper is on a shortened leash today, too. I can’t handle the accusing tone he gives me all the time when stuff like this comes up. We fight about the most stupid things like any normal couple, but mostly we argue about the future. He believes he’s doomed to repeat the mistakes of his father. James ain’t ever hurt me. Not physically, anyway. We’ve had our bickering, and he’s gotten in my face a time or two, but it never goes any farther than that. It’s like a spark, something goes wrong and he snaps into anger, a few harsh words come flying out of his mouth without thinking and then his face fills with remorse. It’s what I point out to him all the time the minute I know he recognizes it.

“You see,” I say, never backing away. “That’s why you ain’t like your daddy, James. You have awareness.”

I think that’s why I haven’t left yet, because I can see past those crinkles of anger and deeper than the illness that’s cursed his genetic line. Awareness. It’s been like this since we first got together and I’ve just put up with it because I love him deeply. I’ve never asked for a ring, but I’m pregnant now and it ain’t just our future anymore.

The miles speed by in silence. Pretty soon, we’re pulling into McKinney and I see the burger joint up the road. My stomach is feeling okay, so this may not be so bad after all. In fact, as we walk in, I’m ravenous. I scarf my burger and inhale the fries. I want all the Coke that’s in the soda machine and then I order a chocolate milkshake to go. James wants to share, and I oblige, even though I don’t see why he can’t just order his own damn ice cream.

“You know, Dad used to buy us ice cream from here,” James says as we walk back to the truck.

I perk up. “Oh really?” James has never mentioned this before.

“It tastes the same now as it did then.” He reaches over and grabs the cup from my hands and pulls a mouthful of shake from the straw. “Then I got sick one time and threw up in his car and he beat me so bad I couldn’t sit down for a week.” He semi-slams the paper cup in the holder on the dash and angrily turns the key. Gravel shoots off from the Ranger’s tires as we pull out of the parking lot and are back on the highway again, heading towards complications. Maybe it’s my shortened temper, but for the first time in the six years of this annual trip, I get upset with James for this outburst and let out an irritated sigh.

“Oh, Jesus Christ, James.”

“What’s wrong with you?” he says, turning his entire head towards me.

“Nothing,” I say, crossing my arms.

“Don’t pull that.”

“I’m tired of this damn stuff every year,” I spit out. “We drive these terrible sixty miles and the entire time you talk about all the bullshit he pulled when you were growing up, and then by the time we get there, you’re all angry and pissy with me and Poppa and the whole thing just sucks.”

“Well, Christ, what do you want me to do about it? Not go? Poppa’d kill me if I didn’t come out here every year,” he keeps his eyes on the road and I can tell he’s trying to control his temper again.

“No, all I’m saying is, well, don’t you think you can at least try and think of something good? I know it couldn’t have been rainbows and peaches with the man, but there had to be something. Maybe if you think of something good instead of all the awful, you won’t be in such a foul mood by the time we get out to the cemetery, and then Poppa won’t get on you about being a grump, and I don’t know, we can finally spend Father’s Day in some peace.”

James doesn’t say anything for a hot minute. He passes a car on the left and then switches back over to the right lane.

“You’re not being fair,” he says.

“Ain’t I?”

“There ain’t nothing good I can talk about.”

“Bullshit.” I try to dig for a specific moment, but nothing is coming to mind under pressure, and I start to panic.

“I said there’s nothing,” his grip tightens on the wheel again. I cross my arms and start to run through holidays and moments that could spark a memory, any memory that was positive, but it was pointless. James hates Christmas for reasons I know stem from his dad. His family was poorer than mine so trips anywhere as a kid were a pipe dream, but I’m desperate. I have to keep the stack from wobbling too far off course into a dangerous area.

“James,” I start to say, my voice soft and flat. “Come on, tell me something good.” He says nothing, his eyes with that tempered glaze. I ignore the feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Come on.”

“No!” His wrist hits the steering wheel and the truck swerves, the car next to us honks, but I don’t think James hears him, or cares. “There isn’t any good stuff. There never was!” His voice bounces off the windshield and the passenger window. I pushed too far, but it was too late to try and reverse course. I might as well keep steering this messed-up ride on my own course.

“I don’t believe that,” I say.

James groans. “You’re being damn difficult.”

“You can’t blame me for wanting my boyfriend to remember decent things about his father.”

“I just don’t see why it’s so important to you.”

“I think it’s important for you, James.”

“I don’t.”

“So we disagree, but I still want you to try.”

“I have tried.” James says this with a touch less anger, and it saddens me because I know it’s true. But I push on.

“Try harder,” I say.

“You don’t understand.” He shakes his head.

“James, I can’t believe your father didn’t love you.”

He doesn’t say anything for a while, but I keep my eyes on him, studying the muscles in his face. I take his silence as him going to those depths, to find something he’d kept shoved at the bottom of his soul, buried in the darkness.

“He didn’t love me,” he says.

“How are you so sure?”

“Because. . . I didn’t love him.”

“James. . . .”

“You wanted the truth, Leah, so there it is. Though, I don’t know why you haven’t figured out any of this before. My dad broke something in me long ago. Love like that, it ain’t possible, alright? Not for me. There ain’t no good left.”

“But how can you say that when I’m sitting here right next to you? I mean, you love me, don’t’ you?”

“That’s different.”

“No it ain’t. Love is love, James.”

“Like shit it is.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, well…” he breaks off into a silence.

“What’re you trying to say?” My stomach rumbles. A wave of nausea hits me and the road swerves, but James’ hands are tight on the wheel. I grab the dashboard to keep the earth from flipping upside down. “You can’t love anyone else?”

No answer. His silence is like a scythe. Heat pulses across my body, a salty sickness creeping its way into my mouth. The Ranger jumps a slab of buckled asphalt and suddenly I have to vomit. No time to ask him to pull over, I slam my hand on the window crank and lower the glass just enough to poke my head through and unleash the juicy burger and fries on the side of the highway at 58 miles per hour.

“Leah!”

I pull my head back inside and roll the window up. I pop open the glove box and pull out one of the hundreds of restaurant napkins we keep stashed in there. “Sorry, must have gotten car sick.”

“Car sick? You ain’t ever gotten car sick before.”

I wipe my mouth and lean my head back against the seat, closing my eyes. My stomach feels lighter, calmer, but my heart is beating too hard, sadness spilling from its chambers and spreading through the inside of the Ranger. “Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything.”

I consider a couple of options. I could cry and tell him I’m pregnant and everything else that is on my mind. Or I could ask him to pull over and let me out, find a way back home and pack up my stuff and leave. Problem is, neither of those options really solve the problem. There’s still a life growing inside me.

Fatigue falls on me like rain so I close my eyes, the sun on my face and shoulders failing to comfort me the way a blanket would a tired baby. I want to sleep and figure I can because James clearly isn’t in the mood to talk anymore, and to be honest, neither am I.

***

I didn’t notice when the truck stopped. I didn’t even realize I had fallen into such a deep sleep. James shakes me and I see his face as I open my eyes, close to mine, holding a cup of Sprite to my lips.

“You feeling alright?” He actually looks concerned, all of the glaze and crinkles gone from his eyes. Fatigue melts into affection as I stare into those honey irises and feel their devotion. I don’t know why he thinks he isn’t capable of love.

“I’m okay. We here already?”

“Yeah, but Poppa ain’t yet. Come on, take a sip of the soda.”

I grab the cup from him and place the straw between my teeth. I sit up and look out. The cemetery is empty, the grass a light brown, thin and withering into dust. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky and I feel the heat radiating off the marble and concrete headstones from inside the Ranger. I pull a sip of soda from the straw.

“You want to wait here for Poppa?” I ask.

“No, let’s just go on over. He should be here in a minute.” James pops open his door and steps out, so I follow. Caliche rocks poke the thin bottoms of my flip flops and I regret the decision to wear them. The sticker burrs in this dead grass are going to tear my feet to hell. We start walking to the gravesite, one of my hands firmly on the soda as I suck in more of the cold liquid. A pathetic excuse for a breeze tries to blow over the cemetery but it really only feels like God just opened a giant oven door. My brain is beating on the sides of my skull and I try to swallow the rest of the Sprite to get it to quit. I wonder if it’s disrespectful to puke on hallowed ground.

“I didn’t bring anything,” I say, realizing we don’t even have a single flower to place on the headstone. James just shrugs. I guess it doesn’t bother him that we’re the first ones to arrive and are walking up to his dad’s grave empty handed. Doesn’t seem right. Poppa’s usually the one who gets here first and typically has something to lay on the grave. Typically, we all stand around, James shuffling his feet in the dirt while Poppa talks, saying nothing more than “yeah,” and “uh huh,” which usually pisses Poppa off. Then we all get quiet for a while. Poppa takes out a folded piece of paper from his pocket and stares at it for a few minutes, then folds it back up and stuffs it into his wallet, never reading it aloud, never leaving it by the headstone. James has never asked what that was all about, and because he hasn’t, neither have I.

We pass a few more rows of grave markers before we arrive at his dad’s. It is so hot I consider hiding out in one of the freshly opened plots, just so I can run my hands through the cold soil that’s been shielded from the heat by layers of earth. We stop a few feet from the stone, and both of us stare at the ground. I start picturing the memories James brought up in the truck and a feeling of anger ripples across my chest. I know it’s not the time or place but I can’t help it. Love spurns a protective desire, but what could I do? The son of a bitch was already in the dirt.

“Well. . .” the rest of my words die away. They all seem so pointless, even more so now. I want all of this to be over and I feel the hurried dreadfulness creep between the graves and lie at our feet. James puts his hands in his pockets and lets out a breath, but he doesn’t say anything, either.

Tires moving through the caliche make us turn our heads. “That’s Larry and Poppa,” James says as the truck parks a few rows back, but only Larry gets out of the vehicle. He’s wearing starched jeans and snakeskin boots with a collared shirt. He is dressed for another occasion separate from this disaster of a day.

“Poppa driving himself?” James asks.

Larry shook his head, his white hair bouncing. “Sorry, James. Your Grandfather wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t make it out, but he does want you to come by before you head back home.”

“Well, he could have called.”

“He figured if he called you this morning and said he wasn’t coming you wouldn’t show,” Larry says.

“Well, that’s not a lie.” James wiped the sweat from his brow.

“But he wanted you to have this and he asked if I could bring it to you.” Larry reaches in his pocket and pulls out the familiar, aging folded piece of paper and hands it to James.

“You serious?”

“Well, your grandfather sure was.”

“What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Keep it, I think.”

“Poppa don’t want it back?” I ask.

Larry looks back and forth between us, then opens only the corners of his mouth to answer like he’s trying to protect us from something. “I don’t think your Poppa’s going to come back out here much anymore.”

This isn’t a hard truth. Poppa is getting mighty old, and Larry is only in his late fifties and has a business to run and new grandkids of his own to visit on Sundays. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time to bring Poppa out here, though I’m sure he would keep doing it if Poppa didn’t step in and say something. I suspect it was all Poppa’s decision, seeing the stuff Larry had piling up on his plate. He didn’t want him missing out and knew he would keep coming unless he told him to get lost, so that’s what he must have done this morning. Very quickly I saw the Father’s Days in the years ahead and tried to imagine what it looked like at this graveside, and who was all standing here if one of them wasn’t Poppa.

“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll leave you two to your affairs. I’ve got a barbecue to get to. Just, go see your grandfather. I think he’d like to see you, James,” Larry says.

“Sure, thanks.” James sticks out his hand and shakes Larry’s before he turns and walks away.

“Have a happy Father’s Day!” I shout after him. He waves a backwards hand and gets in his vehicle and drives off. I turn back to James and eye the paper in his hand. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“The paper! Aren’t you wondering what it says?”

“It can’t be the same one, can it?”

“I’d recognize that folded paper anywhere. Your Poppa always brings it every year.”

James looks down at it, then at his dad’s grave, then shakes his head. “No, let’s just go.”

“James.” I try to let him know this decision is more ridiculous than this whole affair combined. “You stubborn asshole. Just read the thing.”

“Fine, but then we’re going straight home. We ain’t going to Poppa’s. I can’t stand this heat no more.” He unfolds the paper and takes a step closer to the grave and starts to read, rotating his back towards me.

I wait, reading his body language as I imagine his eyes running across the lines of writing and try to think what the paper has to say. Another boiling breeze moves across the air and a sickness stirs in my stomach again. That would be something, to throw up on this man’s grave. I look over at where we parked the Ranger and wonder if I’d even make it back, giving the cup in my hand a shake and almost weeping at its empty silence. After about another minute, James picks his head up and turns around, staring straight through me like hail cutting through trees. A hot redness creeps onto his cheeks, and I expect the glazed, crinkling look of his eyes to follow, but instead he allows the muscles in his face to fall flat. His shoulders droop and his lips curl south. His knees shake and bend, and then all at once, he falls to the ground.

“James!” I drop the cup and kneel down next to him, sticker burrs poking through the soft layers of the skin on my legs. I put my hands on his arms, his neck, and then his face, and pull it into mine, a river of tears streaming down and off his chin. The tremble of something buried deep in him rises to the surface. It is complicated. It is confusion. It is truth. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to. I pull him into my shoulder and let him cry, the paper in the dirt half folded, only a few lines visible on the bottoms of the page. I hold James in my arms, and everything unspoken pours out of him and into the ground below us. Suddenly, the heat doesn’t seem to be such a bother anymore and if he needs me to, I’ll sit here for the rest of my life with him.

The cicadas pick up and that stirs James enough to lift his head. “Okay,” he says.

“Okay,” I reply. He stands up and shakes the dirt from his legs and then helps me to my feet.

“Let’s go see Poppa,” he says.

“Okay.” I fold the paper and place it in my pocket. I’ll ask James what he wants to do with it later.

He grabs my hand and stares at the grave. I don’t pull him along.

“I wanted to love him,” he says.

“I know.” I give his hand a little squeeze, and then we move back to the Ranger, opposite of how we arrived, hand-in-hand, neither of us wanting to let go.

We keep our hands together for the fifteen-mile drive to Poppa’s, and I turn the radio on, music filling the cab for the first time on this trip. As we pull into Poppa’s driveway, James turns off the engine and turns to me, still holding my hand.

“I know about the baby,” he says.

My heart leaps into my throat and tightens every muscle around my voice box. Something like a roar fills my ears. “James—”

He shakes his head. “It’s okay.” His voice is like cotton. The burn of tears builds in the corner of my eyes and in my heart.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” and a smile so big lands on him with such assurance, I let everything inside of me go and weep like a child.

Shirley Dees received an MFA from Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional writing in Spring 2021. When not writing, Shirley is busy parenting, seeking sunshine rays, and sampling local craft brews. She lives in Southeast Alabama with her husband, daughter, and geriatric pet turtle.

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You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Remembrances Of The Sun, Of Shadows

June 4, 2021
Havana

by Bruce Crown

Everything had been hollowed out, especially the people, when I checked in. All sunny resorts are inherently the same. A consortium of young and old people sleeping in vomit, talking through cigar smoke, and swimming in low-range rum. I noticed it as soon as I entered. The Cuban peso was as strong as the American dollar. This amused me greatly. Not because Cuban money is worth more or less; I have no opinion on that. What amused me was that every time I needed money changed, the mob of tourists both in front and behind me would complain about this fact. They knew that their money was worth more, and they wanted to spend it here, to help Cuba by buying things to bring back home.

On the first day, the sun blazed as if to burn the darkness out of me, the abyss that had become a threading existence of booze and despair. The smoke trail of my Cohiba rose and misted towards that yellow star in the middle of the clear blue sky. I sipped what was left of my pineapple juice unable to quench the chasing shadows of my thirst. Just another drunk whose money can buy more booze here than back home.

“It’s too hot,” I puffed smoke to no one in particular.

“Yeah… the weather’s nicer in Havana. I’m from Trinidad myself but this sun feels… different. Hey! Where you goin’?”

“Thanks,” I turned back towards the bald and austere man who had a body that glistened with muscles under the infinitely clear sky.

Why, I thought later, did I immediately get up and accept the idea that the weather would be nicer in Havana than in Varadero? The place where I’d spent the last fortnight drinking and watching the waves wash more and more of the sand away hoping that one day it would wash it all away.

“Motorcycle,” I pointed around where the bikes sat around the lobby. “Havana. To rent.” I needed the cool breeze in my hair.

“Sir, have you been drinking?” it was a different concierge than usual. This one had green eyes and spoke perfect English.

I couldn’t help but wonder, whether from her perceptive, the transitive beings that come from ‘mainland nations’ are simply objects that move between shaded patches of sand while the background rattling of empty bottles ensures that they are all the same despite their faces and the flags on their backpacks changing every few days.

“It’s 10 A.M. amigo. Who drinks this early?” I slid my American Express card across the counter. “Give me something fast. 600CCs or more,” smiling like a sucker because I hadn’t been sober since I left Toronto and even then it was a toss-up.

“We don’t rent motorcycles here. You can rent a scooter if you like. But you can’t go to Havana with it.”

“A car then?” my disappointed grimace was hard to contain.

“That could work. We have a Volkswagen Passat available.”

“How’d you manage that? … A Passat? … You’re joking. I saw some classics on the way in. How about a 1951 Plymouth Convertible?” I watched her type faster than I could think; she picked up the phone and dialled some number and chattered something in Spanish.

“Si. Si…” she was saying as I watched another man approach hang up his cell phone.

They talked in Spanish while I leaned on the counter until she pointed to me.

“You want car?” The man asked.

“Yes but I don’t want a Renault or a Volkswagen. I want one of those nice old school convertibles.”

“You know we keep running ourselves. … We … fix ourselves,” he motioned to himself, “They are not original. I have a Mercedes engine in mine. Chevy rear axle. Plymouth gearbox.”

“What kind of car is it?”

“1950 Chevrolet Deluxe.”

“How much?” I asked.

“You’ve been here two weeks right? The writer from Canada? Very cool. We get many like you here. Always sitting by yourself. Smoking and drinking alone all along the beach. That is what Cooba is to you? … No matter. My friend Simon told me sometimes you take the boat too far and he has to come to you? The guy?” he smiled and nodded to the concierge.

“I need your license,” she said.

I spoke close to no Spanish but I could venture a guess what they were talking about. A moral quid-pro-quo. For you see, dear reader, despite the lavish luxury of five-star resorts, the workers themselves cannot partake of any food or drink. They cannot eat, sleep, or relax on resort property. And we, the wealthy, are hard-pressed not to gorge ourselves on the fine rum and cigars and pineapples and steaks and pasta and chicken. One of the maids told me this on the second day. I couldn’t eat for two days. At some point, coughing in cigar smoke, I decided I would take food out of the cafeteria or restaurant under the guise of eating it in my room and then split it amongst the workers. I’m not trying to make myself seem like some paragon of virtue or compassion; it was more for my own comfort than for theirs. You can’t really enjoy your food if the man serving you is himself hungry. By the fourth day most of the crew knew me. In fact, one gentleman named Joseph, which I later learned was pronounced Hoseph, had even gone so far as to bow his head slightly every time he saw me, and after repeatedly begging him not to, he just grinned whenever he saw me.

I slid my license across. “Which guy?”

“The compassionate man. The man with a soul.”

Clichés all over the place. “I don’t believe in the soul.”

“Oh but you should hermano. The soul believes in you! You take my car. I trust you bring it back in one piece.”

“You have my word.” A lie, of course; there was no way I could guarantee jackshit.

He tapped me on the shoulder and walked away, lighting a cigarette.

The concierge handed my cards back and smiled.

“Gracias,” I knocked on the counter.

De nada,” she handed me the keys. “It’s the last car. It is red. Staff parking. You have to go all the way around. Do you know how to get to Havana?”

“I’ll manage.”

She laughed and shook her head, “Drive down this main road…” she motioned with her hands, “And follow it until you merge onto Circuito and Puente Bascular. Then after a while you’ll get to a sharp left at the bus station and parking area. It’s almost like a U-turn. Then Central de Cuba. You got it? CEN-TRAAAL DEE CUUEEBBAA,” she stretched the last part out.

“I got it.”

“You’ll get to Matanzas. Stay on the coastline. The street is called La Habana. That will be 80 kilometres. Should be an hour perhaps. It’s a nice drive. There are small nice cafés. It’s safe to stop. Then you just… follow signs.”

“My specialty,” I helicoptered the keys in my hand and walked out. But not before buying another box of Cohiba Panetelas from the hotel boutique.

“You driving?” The cigar salesman asked.

“What gave me away?”

“Nothing.  You’re The Guy right?”

I was already tired of hearing that.

“… You’ll love Havana. I’m from Mexico myself. Moved here many years ago. My wife is Cuban.”

“Sounds good. We’ll talk later.” I left.

Walking around the side of the building, the sun reflected off the hoods of what could’ve been a history of the automobile arranged from classic American to the newest 2011 Peugeot hatchback. How’d they get those here, I wondered.

I’ll give it to Hector. He had a wonderfully restored red Chevy convertible with a white line going straight from the headlight to the bump of the back wheel. I polished the rims where the chrome met the duo-coloured wheels. The red leather interior still smelled fresh as if it hadn’t been eroded by the passage of time. With a turn of the key, I travelled straight into the 50s.

The concierge hadn’t lied; it was a wonderful landscape, especially when I turned off the highway and drove along the coast. Middle-aged Cubans worked while their strapping young people danced for the busloads of tourists who saw it fit to stop along the water. The only thing that diminished the surreality of continued existence was the constant shuttering sound of camera phones pining to immortalize moments they probably share with thousands of others. My panetela burned smoothly and I was driving against the sun so the darkness burned away with every kilometre I put behind me.

Some people don’t leave the resort the entire time. What’s the point of that?

I pulled over at a café and had something they called an American Destroyer, and when I told them I was Canadian they just laughed and said it would destroy me anyway. It was Havana Club mixed with a pineapple smoothie. I rested while smoking another panetela. Squinting as I watched the sun rays bounce off the red hood of the Chevy.

When it was time to hit the road again I pulled into a gas station to ask for directions because I was afraid I missed that U-turn at the bus station or wherever. I had a coffee. They only drink it black. There are no frappuccinos or foamy flavoured drinks. Things are simpler. The contempt with which the café owner looked at a young German man who asked for milk because the coffee was too strong kept me entertained for hours. I still had ways to go.

Approaching Havana I heard, whether real or hallucinating, the sounds of drums and street parties. I parked before I actually entered the city and rolled the top back up. In the city there was no need for the natives to frolic from store to store and buy things for the benefit of making the tourist feel safe and comfortable. They had, despite their globally morose situation, a deep elation, and though sometimes it was buried in their hearts, you could sense its presence. Most of them didn’t care which two celebrities were dating and at what bars they could be spotted. Seeing random people dance, sometimes couples, wasn’t something I saw every day in Toronto; I berated myself for appropriating their culture; it was unknown to me. New, rich, and full of wonder. I am pampered for even being in this situation and have this thought. They dance; we shop. It’s all the same feedback loop. Was I permitted to elevate their culture, romanticize it? I was sure that there were places here where conditions would be squalid; but then we had those in Toronto too….

It was majestic. There was a street market; tables full of items ranging from family photographs to war medals to car parts being sold for prices that to the capitalist feels like robbery. Little did I know, that despite Havana’s reputation in the west for being a sex-fuelled, boozed, and debauched city, in the corner of my eye hid one of the most profound interactions of my life.

Walking past a table full of handmade trinkets and then another filled with classic baseball cards I caught a glimpse in the corner of my eye. A flashing blur of aqua blue and yellow. When I looked it was only the tame prosaic colours of Cuban tapestry; the dark green army uniforms of the police and the generic grey or black of the merchants. It was too hot and I felt faint. The thirst returned and while I was enjoying a banana smoothie with dark rum I saw it again: the blue and yellow weaving between a few dark green uniforms checking a man’s ID because he was eyeing a collection of used family photos too attentively. I threw too much money on the table venturing to catch the sky but it was she that caught me when she marched up and sat across me. She did not disappoint.

Bonsoir,” I blurted out, following the sun-ray shining upon the golden waves that formed her hair and down her blue summer dress that rested on her snowy shoulders.

“I saw you drive in and then just now looking at the medals. I love it here.”

“There’s a lot of stuff here.” I saw a plane in front of the clear blue sky and followed it until it approached the sun.

“Not really. That’s why I like it. No stuff. It’s…” she inhaled, “Air. Just air. It’s nice to see you again.” her eyes flickered at my brogue boots. She and I had been more than classmates at the University of Toronto.

“You too. Did you ever go back home?” It was more than nice to see her again.

“Yep. To Oslo,” her smile made the sun blink, cooling the weather when clouds covered it.

“That’s a long way.”

She talked about Cuba as if she was a native and it was beguiling to hear her voice. Those hazel irises contracting and dilating talking about Che and Sartre’s visit and Fidelito—that was what she called him. She hated him but spoke of jingoism and illegal embargoes and unjust sanctions in subdued tones  lest we be overheard by a nosy soldier. Every time she pushed a strand of her golden hair out of the way the sun shined on her face for a second and lit her up even more. I was lost. She talked about the fact that the Hotel Nacional had opened on New Years Eve in 1930. I’d never had patience for people talking but she was…. That’s it, she simply was. Another cliché. I left the rest of my drink when she told me that’s where she was staying and invited me back to see the view.

She had a suite all to herself. It felt magical to see the graffitied walls of that Matanzas village, but then the view of the Havana Harbour, steps away from where Sartre, Sinatra, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had stayed, relegated that graffiti to historical shame. In fact, looking out the window, I could see the rich tourists across Cubans trying to sell them fake Cohibas with no discernible difference between them. They all looked so small, like ants trying desperately to understand what it was that kept them moving and circling themselves. A breeze caught my hair and I felt the cool air on my face.

“Beautiful isn’t it? I love Cooba,” she never quite pronounced it as we do: Queba. Rather, with that slender and sexy North European accent trying at the same time to pass for Spanish. It was Cooba. Habbana. Ron and Soeda. Falling in love with beauty is the easiest thing in the world. You can fall in love with someone’s beauty in the morning and cease to be in love by dusk. In that hotel, years after we’d parted ways as lovers, I began to love her not for her beauty but for her soul and her manifestation not as a being of beauty but as a being of meaning. No self-help book, entrepreneur keynote, designer boutique or Apple Store or reasonable rate of return could give me the gift that Cuba gave me. It felt so natural and so real and yet so transcendental that the city, so different from home, in which this feeling occurred would have profound meaning for the rest of my life.

She poured us drinks from the minibar and talked about the different kinds of rum cocktails they make there. It is a fallacy that only a native can understand and feel a culture and land. In other words, the claim that an expatriate or wanderer could never attempt but to scratch the surface of the beauty of a particular place in vain is simply not true. Contrary to earlier, I now thought that travellers always have a unique perspective at their disposal. They are free of bias if they take care that nothing first-worldly has happened to them to provoke a bias, such as losing their luggage or being delayed on a first-class ticket. Naturally, if the person is a frequent wanderer; a flâneur, their judgment may be amplified for they have an abundance of comparisons to rely upon. I wouldn’t know Cuban cigars were superior to Dominican ones unless I’d been to both places or tried them both. What a terrible example, but you understand what I mean. Critics will say there are preferences and the wanderer will have to agree. New York is better than Havana. Thus criteria are established to judge a place not by its own merit but by its comparison to other cities that fit those criteria. To curtail the argument that the notion of a beautiful city, like the notion of a beautiful man or woman, rests upon the objective, the wanderer must relinquish all previous moments except the moments that occur in the destination. In other words, to presume nothing but the experience itself. This is a posteriori.

Why was I trying to think so logically? To deduce some philosophical system out of rich people travel and spend money and romanticize the natives’ lives?Every book a white man writes about Africa is the same book with the same clichés. Now I was guilty of this.

“Isn’t it amazing?” she came up behind me and we stood side-by-side staring out into the harbour.

I looked at her up and down breathing the same air as her and for a moment, that insatiate thirst was quenched.

“Oh my god! I forgot you were a writer! I have to take you to Hemingway’s. Grab your shirt.”

“I’ve already been. There’s one in Helsinki.”

“Not like this one,” with that floaty step of hers; the dancer’s step, and that smile that lit up the sun, I had no choice but to follow. The clichés nearly broke me, I thought, but then I shrugged; you have nothing better to do, I told myself.

And in the abyss of Hemingway’s I drowned. She chattered with the owner in broken Spanish and pointed to me. I glanced around at all the pictures of Hemingway with various Cuban political and social figures and narrated the stories behind each picture to myself. She was telling him I was a writer or something and like a ritual, as if he’d done it thousands of times before for those western tourists interested in Jazz Age literature and the surfaces of their country, he began mixing a drink.

“No,” I interrupted, lighting a panetela, “Give me something else. I don’t want what Hemingway drank,” it was only sprite and white rum anyway. “Make me something distinctly Cuban. Distinctly yours.

A frightening smile washed across his face as he began mixing a cocktail like an old master coming out of retirement for one last job. “This,” he pointed to the glass, “La Generación Perdida.”

“What’s it mean?” I took the glass.

He smirked, “The Lost Generation.”

Every generation thinks they have it rough. But one financial meltdown after another, one corporate bailout after another at our expense, and you find yourself expecting the next one rather than hoping or looking for a saviour.

The next thing I remember is waking up in her hotel room and watching the water through the window.

“What was in that drink?” she yawned with the sun-rays reflecting from her hazel irises through the window and into my soul.

“I don’t know. But it lost me all right.”

“Now you know how they feel,” she turned away from the window and covered herself with the blanket.

To this day, whenever I play this conversation over and over again in my head in ardent nostalgia, I don’t know why I asked, “You want to come to Varadero with me? I’m heading to Europe after.”

“Where in Europe?”

“Paris, then catching the plane to Lisbon.”

She just laughed as she got dressed. “Maybe next time, my love.” She left the room to get breakfast and never returned. I waited three days. I wanted to stay indefinitely but my hotel called. They were worried and reality set into me like the darkness of those clear night airs so seldom felt in Canada but so plentiful on that “magical” island.

“Thanks Hector,” I shook his hand and handed him the keys, “I filled her up for you.”

“You look different. Believe in souls now, hermano?”

I didn’t answer as readily as last time, “Thanks Hector,” I repeated in an attempt to ignore him, “She really is wonderful,” I pointed to the car.

He laughed. “She is… I like you hermano. You’re cool.”

I bowed to Joseph and left that day. What was it about that place?

The same uncanny disquiet shook me when I saw her again. It was in Paris and I’d been thinking of her constantly. Like the second act of a bad film, I’d dreamt we’d moved to one of those coastline villas outside of Havana and we would wake and drink black coffee and stare out into the sea. I was writing her a poem about it while having my breakfast at the Plaza Athénée and she just… walked in front of me.

“This place is nice,” was how she greeted me after all that elapsed time, “But it’s no Cooba!” then she bent down, pecked me on the cheek, and walked towards the lobby. By the time I chased her outside she was gone again.

Bruce Crown is from Toronto. He has penned four novels. He has attained an HBA from the University of Toronto, and an M.Phil. from the University of Copenhagen. He splits his time between Copenhagen, and Toronto.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story of  what it means to be human as an adoptee is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

The Women Are Waiting

May 28, 2021
women

by Arya Samuelson

It always starts with a woman. Plunging into a clawfoot tub, burning her skin in waves. Or poised at the edge of her bed, head turned as if to pose for a portrait – only nobody else is there. What about the woman gazing at the rice fields, straw brim hat shielding her eyes from the feverish sun? She is not of this place and that’s why she has come. Because she feels freest in places where she has no history. (No history except colonialism, whispers a voice inside, which she swats away like the mosquitoes that form a curtain along the river.) A woman living inside a girl, furious and desperate because she can’t tie her shoes; the knot is slipping and she’s screaming inside, surrounded by a hovering crowd of her brother’s friends.

These women are waiting. Their story awaits. Hearts beat wildly, skin pulsing with the desire to be carried away on the boat of narrative that will give their lives, their pain, a purpose. The boats with engraved names like Plot or Character Development or Foil. Many will wait for a yacht to dock and hope for a big pay-off, others prefer a fishing boat (an ensemble drama,) while some settle for a sailboat: a self-published journey. It’s only the bravest and most foolish who dream of Transformation, the solitary ship that travails the rockiest, most violent waters. Capsizing is the deal you must strike. Body buckled beneath the current, black seaweed twisting your ankles. Heartbursting, striving for surface and a life beyond it. Survival is not a guarantee. Better to board the cruise boat that sails alongside and raise a cocktail glass to those morons. Sure, you only exist in glimpses – everyone’s attention fixed on Transformation, betting on the odds as if this were a horse race – but at least you’ll get to have some fun.

How to obtain passage on such a ship? Theories abound. Some say you need to cause a scene, shriek in the captain’s ear, and if it comes to this, grip your hands around his neck. Others whisper about underground bidding wars, where tickets are auctioned in exchange for unspeakable deeds. But another way is to climb inside an image – a woman plucking flowers, or lighting a house on fire, or climbing inside a bathtub and sing the words that resound at the core of your pelvis. Just stay there, resting inside the frame or moving your limbs when the impulse strikes, entirely and completely yourself, until someone walks by with a thousand questions. A passer-by so moved with wonder they’ll invite you onto their ship. Though you must wait for the right person, someone who won’t treat you like a circus monkey or glaze over your words. Wait for the person who will instead feed you fresh bread and crisp apples, who leaves a bowl of silence after each question, waiting to be filled with your voice.

Arya Samuelson is a writer currently based in Northampton, MA. She was awarded CutBank’s 2019 Montana Prize in Non-Fiction, which was judged by Cheryl Strayed. Her work has also been published in New Delta Review, Entropy, and The Millions. Arya is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program at Mills College and is currently working on her first novel. She is proud to be part of Lidia Yuknavitch’s Corporeal coven of writers.

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.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

Nobody Lives Here Anymore

May 7, 2021
rose

by Margaret MacDonald

When Rose dreams, she’s in the middle of a long street. It’s one of the streets that her and Cathy would make jokes about, would make up stories about the lives inside, would look at the house stiff and erect and lifeless and instantly know the type of person who owned it.

Surely nobody can live in there, Cathy would say. You would be scared to take your shoes off.

Rose’s sister goes missing on a Tuesday. On a Tuesday Rose’s sister leaves. Whichever one is true, either way she’s gone. Rose tells the police everything she knows.

She was at work late that night and her name is Cathy

She was wearing a grey raincoat and her name is Cathy

Her name is Cathy and her name is Cathy

After a week, the police come to the conclusion that Cathy left of her own volition. The evidence is stacked against Rose: Cathy took some cash out of their shared safe, some of her clothes are missing along with her rucksack, and she quit her job the night that she left.

Nothing survives her or loves her except for Rose. There’s nobody to argue with.

Rose leaves voicemails, texts, Facebook messages, Snapchat messages, emails. She calls and calls and calls until her voice is hoarse from repeating the same lines, always a variation of please just answer or please let me know you’re alright or please.

She worries so much that she gives herself a stomach ache. The worst of all is that she doesn’t know what she did wrong.

Rose finds a dead spider in the bath. She baulks to move it but manages to scoop it up with a cup. The noise that it makes as it flops against the side, solid and real, reminds her that it was alive once. She looks down at it, small inside the cup. What a terrible way to die, she thinks. Scrambling uselessly against the side of the bathtub, desperately trying to stay afloat inside the puddle left behind. The longer she looks, the longer she thinks that might not be true. Maybe its last moments were peaceful, and clean. She read somewhere that you shouldn’t kill spiders; that they’re signs of a clean home. An empty home.

In her dreams, Rose looks down the long row of houses that her and Cathy joked about. She starts to walk. There’s no lights on in any of the houses. They’re all identical, white-bricked and front-facing, all hollow dark windows and shadowed edges. There’s one at the end, though, that feels different. It feels alive.

Rose slows as she nears it. She watches for a moment.

Branches press their arms against the glass, pushing and curling and bending to fit inside the house until they sprout out the window to shoot tall and long and free. The roof is moving too, straining, hurting, before more branches push and shove themselves out. They bloom with leaves and flowers and create a canopy, like a silly little hat.

Rose smiles. It truly does look silly. Like a tree wearing a house, or maybe a house swallowed a tree.

She walks around the side to inspect it, comes to the back garden and feels her feet stop. It’s their back garden, the one they grew up in.

Rose takes a couple steps until she’s in the middle. She stands there for a moment until she feels something. She frowns.

It’s a voice, it’s underneath her feet somewhere below the ground, not a sound exactly but the sensation that a voice makes in the base of the throat. It’s in the soles of her feet, a vibration, a feeling.

Rose goes down on her hands and knees. She touches the mud with tentative fingertips and feels along the surface; it’s trying to escape. Rose doesn’t know why, doesn’t know how she knows, but then

She starts to dig, her fingers tearing at the soft earth like teeth into cake. The more she digs the more it unearths of the voice, the murmur. It’s shapeless and formless but it’s familiar, it’s her sister, she’s buried, she’s trapped.

A frantic sense of surety wells up in Rose, she’s down there, she knows Cathy is down there. Her hands are deep deep deep inside, elbow-high in the stomach of it, fingernails rooted and filled with mud. Rose puts her ear close to the ground and strains to hear, listens for help or I’m stuck or Rose, is that you? Get me out! but the murmuring is taking shape, is turning into words, a strange automated quality to them, robotic and unreal as,

Hye, you there? I’ve been back to the apartment

Rose spreads her palms across the ripped-up earth, the roots and the muck, presses the side of her face flat and listens to the whirring click of the voicemail,

Where are you? They said you quit your job two days ago. Seriously, Cathy? What the hell are –

The voice is small, it smells like moss and dirt, like piles and piles and piles of earth are on top of it.

Okay, I really don’t give a shit about the money, just call –

Rose closes her eyes, she could speak the words alongside herself, she could say,

Where exactly do you think you’re going to stay, Cathy? Do you not realise we’ve scraped by –

She lies down properly, on her side with her cheek in the mud, and mouths,

Are you ever going to answer? I know these are going through, so what? You won’t block me, won’t change your number, you’ll just keep ignoring me?

Are you there?

Hey, I’m home! You’d never guess what happened on my way over!

Anyone home! It’s me!

Just me!

Margaret McDonald (she/her) is a Scottish writer. She has a B.A (Hons) in Creative Writing with English Literature from The University of Strathclyde, and is currently studying for an MLitt in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. She was shortlisted in the Cranked Anvil Short Story Competition July 2020. She’s @margaret_pens on Twitter and @margaretmcdonald_ on Instagram

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Autism, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Ordinary Lives

April 16, 2021
risa

by Marlene Olin

Margaret hears the sound of cabinet doors slamming. When she walks into the kitchen, her heart lurches. The walls are splattered, the floors crunchy.  But her daughter’s happy. Tomato sauce spackles Risa’s hair and her glasses. On top of a pot, steam billows.

“Dinner’s almost done,” says Risa.  A tornado of arms and legs, she whirls from the sink to the stove. “By my calculations, nine minutes tops.”

Once again Margaret glances at her kitchen. Risa has created a workspace like she’s been taught. The counter is covered with newspaper. The ingredients lined just so. Bay leaves. Garlic. Onion. Oregano. The measuring spoons and cups. The mixing bowls and slotted spoons. Not one dish will be cleaned until after dessert.  Order is everything.

“Looks great, sweetie. It’s such a help when you cook dinner.” Then Margaret mentally makes a note of the post-cleaning required long after her daughter has cleaned and gone to bed.

But there’s no denying that Risa’s happy. There’s a lift in her step and she hums while she works. When she’s finished, she walks up to Margaret. Most people would leave an ample amount of space between them. But space is subjective. Space is a loose and wobbly entity that one intuits. Instead Risa lines up toe to toe with her mother and waves a finger in Margaret’s face.

“One more step on the road to independence, Mom.”  Then she remembers her smile cards and creases the corners of her mouth.

***

Three hours later, they are lying down. Risa’s bedroom has looked the same for decades. The sheets are soft and flannel, the shelves lined with her collections. Stones. Crystals. Shells.

As always, Margaret picks a book of poems and reads. Dickinson tonight. Perhaps Browning tomorrow. Outside the window the moon waxes and wanes. Inside the words fall like waves. It’s the sound that matters, the lilt, the lull, the up and down. Meanwhile Margaret stifles yawn after yawn. Her day can’t end soon enough.

“Do you know that a giraffe just needs 1.9 hours of sleep?” says Risa.

While she turns the page, Margaret listens to the quiet of her house. A TV drones. A dryer rumbles. Somewhere her husband is lurching. Hunched, his hands clenched, his eyes darting.  A lost soul, her husband. A Victorian ghost. A daguerreotype, grayed and grim, save for the waistcoat and watch.

“Do you know that sharks have to keep moving?”  says Risa. “Do you know that sharks never sleep?”

“Never sleep?” says Margaret.

Despite herself, Margaret savors the moment. For she knows that moments like these will soon be come and gone.  This is the year that Risa’s turning forty. With the proper supervision and support, Risa will be getting her own apartment. Her bags will be packed. The house will be emptied. The shrinks, the social workers, the experts all say it’s time.

On the ceiling are Day-Glo constellations. As soon as the lamp’s turned off, they grab the light. Margaret closes her eyes. In seconds she’s transported to 1980’s. They had just moved to Miami for her husband’s new job.

  “Spring has sprung!” said the banner. Bunnies and egg-lined baskets.  A chain of pastel construction paper crisscrossed the room.

The teacher kept her voice to a whisper. “I have twenty children in my kindergarten. Twenty children and two aides. But Risa’s the one we watch. She runs with scissors. Walks into the seesaw. The other day she followed a stray dog out the school and down the block.”

What was her name?  Miss Susan or Miss Sarah. It was mythical the way she saw into the future. Like some sort of blind seer. Back then there were no catchphrases. No spectrums. No labels. Nothing to hang your hat on but despair.

“Her IQ is sky high. That’s obvious. And her knowledge of trivia endless. But she flinches at the slightest touch. She’s terrified of hugs.”

Instead of friends, Risa had pets. No dogs or cats. Margaret’s husband was allergic. To the hair. To the dander. To the pollen on their fur. Instead they adopted an ever-changing zoo. A guinea pig that kept them up all night. A savage hamster. A gerbil that found its way into the dryer duct. Saltwater fish. Freshwater fish. One morning they’d be fine. Then the next they’d be floating, a lifeless eye staring toward the light.

A fitful sleeper, Risa tosses and turns while Margaret inches closer to the edge. Of course, her daughter has no idea what awaits her. Noisy neighbors. Nosy landlords.  Butt crack plumbers. Pervs. But what Margaret fears most is the loneliness. She can see it now.  The hours of bone-crushing silence, the kind of quiet that screams.

Margaret’s dealt with pitfalls and potholes. And now an old familiar panic starts to grow.  Margaret’s learned to trust her instincts. Her instincts rarely fail her. But all she envisions are red lights and stop signs.  Risa’s own apartment? All she can hear is her voice shouting no!

Meanwhile Margaret’s bullied right and left.

From her son, the lawyer in Washington, the one who will one day bear the burden. Each rebuke is spewed with fear: “You’re not getting younger, you know.”

From the shrink. Good or bad, inspired or idiotic, the meter keeps running:  “What’s the worst that can happen?”

From the professionals in their air-conditioned offices, sweatered in smiles, gripping their coffee cups, glued to their screens: “It’s time to cut the cord, Mom.” Like Margaret’s a fucking stereotype. Like there’s an instruction manual she somehow missed.

Only her friends can she count on. In darkened rooms, she sobs while they sip Chablis. “She’s going where?” They say. “You’re doing what?”

But her daughter is insistent. She’s like a dog with a bone. Pulling. Tugging. The whole world has narrowed to this one theme, this one topic, this one road.

Margaret lowers her voice, taps into some patience, and slips a mask of calmness on her face. It won’t be as easy as you think, Margaret reminds her. The words coil like an undercurrent, slipping into every conversation. You’re too kind-hearted. Not everyone is as trusting and as kind-hearted as you.

But no argument chips the concrete. Instead Risa rolls her eyes. Then she reminds her mother of her accomplishments. The 3.3 average in college. Her job at the library. Plus she’s cooked dinner for three nights straight!

***

They make apartment hunting more of a pastime than a project. Marilyn, their realtor, is a friend. Blonde, bronzed, roped with jewelry, she carves out time in her busy busy schedule. She has known Margaret and Risa since forever.

Every Sunday, it is now part of their routine.

Marilyn points out the window. Beyond the pool is Biscayne Bay. “The condo is vacated,” says Marilyn. “Its owners just fled. Tax problems. Immigration problems. Who knows?  A bedroom and two baths plus lots of light.”

Margaret struggles to find fault but finds herself tongue-tied, stumped.

“I like this place,” says Marilyn. “There’s a nice view. Incredible amenities. A party room plus a gym!”

While Margaret follows the swoop of her hand, Risa has disappeared.  They find her checking out a spider down the hall.  When she joins them, her face is vacant, her eyes glazed. Security deposits. Down payments. It’s all too much too absorb.

“Do you know that living rooms were once called parlors?” says Risa. “When you died, they laid out your body on a table. Then all your friends and relatives dropped by.”

“Really?” says Marilyn. She is listening and not listening. Punching her phone.

“Really,” says Risa. “Then one day death became a business. Morticians took the bodies, cleaned them up, and moved them to funeral parlors. Then people started calling their parlors living rooms. Get it? Living rooms.”

“Is that a fact?” says Marilyn.

“Do you know that after mating,” says Risa, “the male arachnid dies?”

It was eighth grade. All the kids in Risa’s private school were supposed to perform community service. The voices in Margaret’s head said no. The voices yelled and screamed, are you insane? But Risa pleaded, all the kids were doing it, here’s the list of places we can go.

The plan was to drop her off at the animal shelter every Saturday. Margaret insisted on her version of a hazmat suit. Long sleeves, long pants. Covered shoes. They gave Risa all the jobs no one else would do. Clean bird shit from cages. Clean dog shit from crates. Every afternoon Margaret would pick Risa up, drive her home, and direct her straight into the shower.

Still the first month went smoothly. No chore was too vile. Risa would rake her fingers through a dog’s fur and instantly decompress. She’d stroke a cat and shudder as it purred. It was the second month that proved a disaster.

A staff member named Timmy started hanging around. A scruffy beard to cover up the acne. Torn jeans and checkerboard teeth. He’d wash a dog and spray Risa with the hose until her clothes clung. Then he’d warble, look who’s got titties. He talked her into wearing white tee shirts, the more to gawk at when they clung.

Then one day he asked her along to pick up a litter. They took off in his truck, his hand slipping on and off the gear stick, digging in the space between her thighs.  You working out, Risa?  She sat up straighter, startled. You seem tense, he said. I can feel your muscles clench.

She took a shower for two hours that night. Then she plucked out all her eyelashes. Clean couldn’t get clean enough.

But Marilyn’s not on the program. While Margaret wants to press the pause button, Marilyn’s programmed to make a deal. It’s almost Thanksgiving when she finds the perfect apartment. Fully refurbished. Fort Knox Security. The place is only two miles from their house.

“I’m sending you a lease,” says Marilyn. “We’ve got to jump on this one fast.”

The three of them had just finished eating a quick dinner in the kitchen.  Margaret. Her husband. Risa. The family response is all too easy to predict.

The husband retreats to his den.

Margaret gulps an antacid followed by an Ativan chaser.

Risa puts her hands on her hips. Then she lectures her mother theatrically like she’s seen people do on TV. “Everyone has their own apartment. I’m the only person in the world without her own apartment. This is your problem, Mother. Not mine.”

“But Risa,” says Margaret scrambling for words.

Next her daughter lifts her chin toward the ceiling and starts bugling like an overgrown toad.  When she’s finished with her performance, she turns once more to Margaret.

“Do you know,” says Risa, “that a Panamanian gold frog has no outside ears? It can even ignore its own voice.”

The days slog by. Marilyn texts every hour on the hour while the three of them gnash their teeth. But the more Margaret vacillates, the more anxious Risa becomes. She gives up sleep altogether. She bites on her lips and chews on her hands, gnawing her nails to the quick.

If only there were a guidebook, thinks Margaret. A primer for extraordinary people who crave ordinary lives. The problem is so much more than geography. There’s a hole in Risa’s heart that she can’t identify let alone fill. Though Risa’s life is consumed with routine, it’s shockingly empty.  Sure she has contacts on social media. But they aren’t true connections. They aren’t real friends.

And while Risa stays stuck, the rest of the world has moved on. Her brother has married and has two children. Even her younger cousins have families, too.

Is this something you can imagine? Margaret once asked her. Is this something that you want? When you look into the future, is this something that you see?

No, says Risa. I really can’t.

It’s a reality that Margaret has difficulty accepting. At night, she dreams of happy endings.  She pictures satin wedding gowns. A handsome groom and a multi-tiered cake.

But there’s no cooing infant in this picture. There’s no strolling down an aisle festooned with baby’s breath and ferns. Instead, Risa envisions a menagerie, a home for the lost and the neglected. There are no playpens and Pampers. Instead there’s meowing and barking. Chirping and cheeping. Room after room of flying feathers.

Her husband hides. Her son yells. Her realtor nags. And like mercury in a thermometer, her daughter’s stress shoots up. Meanwhile Margaret walks on tiptoes and speaks in whispers. It’s like living with a volcano that’s bound to explode.

“I hate you, Mother,” says Risa.

“They want signatures,” says Marilyn.

But Margaret shakes them off. There are and will be other apartments. This is another roadblock they can overcome.

She spends hours on the computer. Then she locates a special organization in Wisconsin that sells trained dogs. They aren’t service dogs. Risa would have to wait years for a service dog. But they know forty commands right off the bat.

The family response is all too easy to predict.

Risa’s eyebrows nearly jump off her head. Then she bounces up and down like she’s on a trampoline, waving her hands and wiggling her fingers. “I’m getting a dog! I’m getting a dog!”

The husband starts sneezing.

The son whines. “I always wanted a dog. We never got a dog before. Now Risa gets a dog?”

By January, the two of them are in Madison. The temperature is below zero and everything’s white. The rental car passes frozen lake after lake, the air’s still, the sky crisp. A few crazies are ice-fishing. Convenient stores sell cheese balls, cheese curds, cheese soup. Churches scream, Save Your Soul! Their laps are littered with road maps while their phones prove useless. Heading into the woods, they drive clean off the grid.

After two hours, they locate the kennel. Ten acres, a barn, and a house. A lumberjack kind of guy opens the door. Six feet tall, he’s a Paul Bunyan look-alike.  Flannel shirt. Workman boots.  Jeans.

Soon their efforts are rewarded when twenty Labrador Retriever puppies greet them. Black. Yellow. Brown. Licking. Yapping. Pawing. Deciding is impossible. Ridiculous!  With tears in her eyes, Risa becomes enamored with each and every one.

Finally, as the sun sets, a gold-colored dog picks Risa. She is sitting on the floor when a two-month-old ball of fluff waddles over, lies in her lap, and falls asleep. Smiling, Risa gives her a name. She looks like a Milly, don’t you think? Then they say their goodbyes and leave the puppy in Wisconsin to be trained. After a five-month gestation period, they’ll fly back. Then they’ll pick up the newest member of the family.

In the meantime, they get ready. They sign a lease. Purchase furniture. And every few weeks they’re emailed photos of the dog. Risa forwards them to everyone she knows. Like any proud parent, she diligently records milestones. She carries a brag book. To strangers on the bus she says, Have you seen anything cuter? To her mother she says, You’re the best.

There are commands to learn and supplies to buy. Leashes. Crates. Rawhide toys. Could Risa register for gifts at a pet store, Margaret wonders? Can I send out an announcement when our latest addition arrives? Sure, she tells her friends. Getting a new dog doesn’t have to be this hard. But when is learning to love ever easy?

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, PANK, Catapult, and The Baltimore Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee twice for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

death, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Bernoulli’s Heart

April 9, 2021
By Marco Etheridge

The coffin was in the ground and clods of earth had drummed on the hollow box. Retreating to the home of the newly departed, the mourners pour out liberal libations. Murmurs move through the sprawling house; quiet lamentation mixed with dashes of muffled laughter.

Some of the bereaved gather under the shaded cloister, chic in veils and tailored suits of black. Sunlight spills over the red earthen tiles of the courtyard. Four tables stand in the sunlight, four umbrellas furled. All of the wrought iron chairs are empty save for one.

The woman’s face is hidden under a wide-brimmed black hat. Her legs are bent to one side, ankles crossed, the black-stockinged calves of a woman younger than five decades. On the table beside her is an almost empty wine glass rimmed with ghost kisses from crimson lips.

A man appears from the shadow of the cloister. He strides across the courtyard, a full glass of wine in one hand, a tumbler of scotch in the other. The woman tilts back her head, watches his progress from beneath the brim of her hat.

The man stops beside her table, still holding the two glasses. He smiles at the woman with that singular smile that is reserved for old lovers. She returns his smile in kind while adding up the years since she last saw him in the flesh.

— John Staffen, as I live and breathe.

— Hello Yvette. Bit of a redundant expression, especially for a wake.

— What’s more redundant than a wake?

— Too true, in a sad sort of way. I saw your glass was empty. I had to guess on the wine.

— You always were a gentleman. If the wine is red, and in a glass, it’s perfect.

John Staffen flourishes the wine and places it on the table with a mock bow. Raising himself, he gestures to an empty seat. Yvette awards him a regal nod. He unbuttons his black suit coat and sits. He looks long over the rim of his whisky and Yvette Martin lets him look. Crystal scrapes the glass tabletop as he sets it down.

— My brain is telling me fifteen years, but my eyes don’t agree. You look damn good, Yvette.

— Thank you, John, it’s been sixteen, but who’s counting? You look good as well.

Staffen snorts, shakes his head.

— I look like death on a cracker and you know it. Not as bad as our dearly departed Harry, of course.

— Don’t be a drama queen, John. You’re not on stage right now. A little grey at the temples, some craggy lines; you’re a handsome middle-aged devil.

He waves a dismissive hand.

— Are you living here in the old alma mater?

— That’s right, still living at the scene of our crimes. I’ve got a cute condo with a view of the Charles, walking distance from my lab and the lecture hall. I’m all settled down like a real grownup. I assume you’re here just long enough to pay your last respects.

— I’m watching a friend’s place for a few weeks, then I’m off to Seattle for rehearsals and a six-week run of Uncle Vanya. I’m cast as the Old Professor, something that happens more often these days. Not that it matters.

— I’ll bet the script girls still swoon.

She gives him a long look but not without a smile. It is a look he remembers well. He thinks better of it and retreats.

— Do you mind if I smoke? It’s been a long morning.

— By all means. I look forward to the waves of disapproval.

Staffen glances to the figures in black strung along the shadowed borders of the courtyard.

— Piss on them. A murder of crows.

He removes a small cigar from a pocket, clips it, and flicks a lighter. The flame hovers beneath the tip of the cigar. He leans back in his chair as a cloud of smoke rises and swirls into the sunlight. A half smile breaks across his face as he speaks.

— Sixteen years gone and our paths cross here. I think Harry would get a chuckle out of that.

— I hope so. Were you two still close?

— No, not since he became the rich and famous Henry Grimes. We’d see each other now and again, whenever he felt like slumming with his old pals. I played Falstaff to his young prince, even though he had a decade on me. When was the last time you saw him?

— It’s been five years. We had a bit of a falling out. Bitter words, expectations not met, that sort of thing.

— Wait, were you two a thing? I had no idea.

— Why would you? Harry kept all his lives in separate compartments. Not the sort of man to spill his secrets while swilling drinks with you. What would he say? Oh, by the way John, I’ve bedded the former love of your life. Lovely Girl, I don’t know why you ever let her slip away. That was never Harry’s style and you know it.

Staffen smokes in silence, taking this in. Harry would have been right to say it. Why did he let her slip away? More of a push than a letting slip, truth be told.

— Anyway, it ended badly, as we both knew it would. But here I am, mourning the beloved dead.

Yvette takes a long drink of wine. She smiles at her former lover, the edges of her teeth stained bloody red.

— Don’t be shocked, John, and don’t pout. I always hated that. Harry was a charming man in his own way, until he wasn’t.

— I’m not shocked, just a bit surprised. You know it’s true, the part about you being the love of my life.

— I know.

— Do you mind if I change the subject?

— Please do.

Staffen contemplates his cigar before speaking.

— How many funerals have you been to this year?

— That’s a morbid question.

— Humor me, you used to be good at it.

— Don’t be catty, it doesn’t suit you. How many funerals this year? Three, if we’re counting today. Why?

He nods, as if having something confirmed.

— This makes four for me. There’s been a subtle shift in my social schedule. It happened sometime after I turned forty. I used to suffer through more weddings than funerals. Now it’s the opposite. The change is weighing on my mind, or rather on my heart.

— You’re being serious. That’s not like you. What do you mean, weighing on your heart?

— When I review the owner’s manual for my life, I can’t find a single chapter where it states that death will become a regular event. The bastards who wrote it lied to me, at least by omission.

— There’s an owner’s manual? I guess I never got my copy.

— Sure you did; we all did. It’s that compendium of expectations that we learned as kids. Childhood, school, meeting that special someone, children of our own, then a happy life into our dotage. But the balance tilts along the way. Not everyone gets their allotted four-score years. A car crash, an OD, a cancer diagnosis, and before you know it your heart is filled with dead people elbowing for space. My heart is getting crowded.

Yvette swirls the wine in her glass, thinks better of it, returns the glass to the table. She leans closer to John before she speaks.

— Your metaphorical heart is running out of space?

— Ever the scientific mind, Yvette.

— That’s one of the perils of being a scientist.

— Yes, I’m talking about the poet’s heart, not the muscle in my chest that races every time I see you.

— John Staffen, that is a very odd and sweet thing to say. Setting that weird compliment aside, my scientific mind tells me that you’re talking about accumulated grief. But on another level, I think I understand what you mean. I lost my mother, then my sister, both to breast cancer. Dead friends, people you don’t know, some younger than me. And now Harry, of course.

— There’s that as well, the quick assessment of my own mortality. When I read someone’s obit, the first thing I do is compare my age to theirs. Were they younger than me? The math gets less pretty as the years pass.

Yvette shakes her head, raises one hand as if to ward off the thought.

— No obituaries for me, thanks. I’m fifty years old, not some crazy old cat lady. A girl has limits. And no mortality discussions at a wake; We’re supposed to be celebrating Harry’s life, remember?

— Right, and now I have to make room for Harry. Except as I’m saying this out loud, I think it’s a question of weight rather than space. The dead weigh more than the living. Does that make any sense?

Staffen reaches for his whisky, eyes on Yvette over the rim of his tumbler. He is surprised to see her chuckle and responds with a questioning shrug which she answers.

— Sorry, science and grief colliding.

— Which one of them is funny?

— It’s the collision that’s funny, at least to me. Do you remember Bernoulli’s principal?

— You are the strangest woman I’ve ever met. You know that, right?

— Says the man who almost married me. Are you stalling for time?

— No, Bernoulli, I remember. That’s what allows planes to fly and shower curtains to be annoying, right?

— Yes, and more to my point, why straws collapse when you try to suck up that last bit of milkshake. Fluid dynamics; as the speed of flow increases, the pressure decreases. Less pressure inside the straw than outside it, so the milkshake squishes the straw.

— I’m being serious and you’re making fun.

— No, I’ve been struggling with this same sense of loss, more than just today. You talk about grief in terms of weight and space and my brain searches for a scientific principle to corroborate or deny. It’s how my mind works. You know that.

— Then would you care to explain how Bernoulli equates to the weight of grief?

— This is not an equation; it’s an analogy that banged into my head on top of, um, three glasses of wine. Which doesn’t make it untrue, just a little tangled. First, we need a baseline. Have you ever dated a widow?

— No widows, no orphans. Why?

— You always were a smart man. It’s very difficult to compete with a dead lover. Once they’re dead, they don’t make mistakes. The dead don’t forget birthdays, or anniversaries, and they are always there. Unlike the living, who tend to fuck things up and are often absent when they should be present.

— Is this from first-hand experience?

— Trust me, John, just say no. You can bitch about someone’s Ex, but you slander their dear departed at your own peril. Which is the opening to my hypothesis: the dead are immobile, hence denser. The living are different. We hold them in our hearts, but not like lumps of lead. They move around, sometimes they annoy the hell out of us. Their relative weight in our heart changes. What I’m saying is that their presence is not a constant.

Staffen shakes his head in wonder. Yvette talking a mile a minute, an idea clenched firmly between her teeth. And no subject was ever too weird for her. A woman unlike any other he had ever known.

— The living are annoying, so they weigh less in my heart? That’s your theory?

— It’s a hypothesis, not a theory, and yes. Poor old Harry is dead and laid to rest. I can tell you about his less than charming traits, but I suspect that in a month all I will remember is the Harry that I loved, minus the annoying bits.

Staffen swirls the ice in his glass. Don’t say it; don’t be an idiot. Then the whisky does the talking.

— What about me? How much do I weigh in your heart?

He expects a thrown wineglass or a scowl. Instead, Yvette rewards him with a long loud laugh. The sound of it echoes across the courtyard and draws scowls from the margins. Her laughter fades from everything but her eyes as she gives him an appraising stare.

— You’ve still got balls, John. You always did. But you’re not dead yet, so how can I answer your question? I could give your ego a good stroke and say that I pine for you every day, but that’s not true. We had some amazing years, you and I, until you started indulging in script girls.

— Something I’ll always be sorry about.

She waves it away like a mosquito, somehow keeping the smile on her face.

— Water under the bridge, the bridge has fallen in the river, and always is too long for anyone.

— I’m a good swimmer; better now than I used to be.

Yvette says nothing, turns her head to scan the milling shadows at the edge of the courtyard. John sees Yvette in profile and his heart shakes off two decades as they have no weight or consequence. His brain struggles to keep up.

She turns her head and catches him staring, her eyes grey and serious.

— It’s a good turnout for Harry. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to say?

— Sure, a life measured by the column inches of his obit and how many mourners showed up for the free booze.

Staffen smokes, blows a small cloud above his head, watches it drift across the empty courtyard. He remembers when he and Harry were lean and poor and always dreaming up the next great idea. Old dead Henry Grimes might enjoy this memorial, but young Harry would’ve walked out of any party this boring.

C’mon, John, this place is deader than dead. Grab that good-looker and let’s get outta here. He hears the dead man’s voice in his head and laughs out loud. Yvette arches an eyebrow from under the shadow of her mourning hat.

— I was just thinking how Harry would have hated all of this empty ritual. It’s no wonder the dead want to clutter up my heart. Where the hell else would they go? Certainly not here, not with all this quiet, carefully modulated grief. It’s not even mourning, it’s grief-lite. Easier on the mascara and the neighbors don’t complain about the keening.

Then Yvette’s hand is on his and the rising tirade of his words falls to nothing. When she speaks, her voice is quiet.

— I remember walking through a graveyard in Greece. The tombstones had photographs set into them. They looked like old-fashioned cameos; black-and-white images printed on porcelain ovals. Harry was with me on that trip. He said the photos were ghoulish. I suppose they were, but I also thought they were a good idea. The dead person is fixed in place, bound to their grave by their own image. The loved ones go to visit, light the candles, tidy up, and then leave the dead behind when they go home.

— They leave the dead behind, but they don’t forget.

— I suppose that’s right. It’s as if we’ve lost the rituals that hold the dead in place. When I go to an old cemetery, I feel the presence of all those departed souls. Not very scientific, I know, but I do love an old cemetery.

— As if I could forget the two of us wandering around Père Lachaise in Paris.

— Yes, it was dismal and rainy and cold. You wanted to find Oscar Wilde and I was looking for Edith Piaf.

There was a stir and murmur amongst the black suits and dresses. Staffen turns to look over his shoulder.

— It looks like they’re closing the bar. Shall I fetch you another glass of wine?

— No thanks, three glasses of red on an empty stomach. If I stop now, I’ll remember what happens next.

He turns back and is trapped by her grey eyes. Fear and longing mix and swirl in his chest, pushing away the warmth of the whisky. Then his heart elbows aside the fear and makes room for the longing.

— What does happen next?

— I think we bid Harry a fond farewell and find a taxi.

Yvette rises from her chair and John is quick to do the same. She slides a black shawl across her shoulders, looks at him and smiles. He crooks an elbow. She slips her arm through his and speaks to the sun and sky.

Au Revoir, Harry. Bon voyage.

He feels the pressure of her hand on his wrist and finds his own words.

Adios, Harry. Vaya con Dios.

He looks into Yvette’s eyes and two decades fly past him and swirl away into the sunlight. A long moment passes before he is able to move.

Then Yvette and John are walking across the red earthen tiles of the courtyard, arm in arm as a couple. When they reach the shaded cloister, the murder of chic crows parts to allow them passage.

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured in many reviews and journals in Canada, The UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Coffin Bell, In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, After Happy Hour Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine, The Metaworker, and Route 7. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available now. Learn more about Marco at https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

In the Flesh of an Apple

April 2, 2021
apple

By Mercury-Marvin Sunderland

Julius bit into a big red apple. He was groggy, and it was morning. He was lying around in his on-campus apartment at Portland State University, trying to ignore the cramping in his uterus yet again. He got them fairly often, and would try to medicate himself with weed occasionally. He tried not to do it because he didn’t want to be as addicted to it as he was in high school. Provided, he didn’t want to be addicted to weed in the first place, but cutting down on it was the first step.

It had been years since he’d last had his period. When he’d started testosterone it had thankfully stopped the bleeding, but he was still getting the cramps. For a lot of people, starting HRT meant that it took away both the bleeding and the cramps, but for others, it wasn’t so fortunate. However, Julius was doing his best to just be grateful for what he had, and he knew that there were many people who didn’t get the privilege to start testosterone in the first place. He was just starting to get stubble and that was exciting. His voice was just getting deep.

Just think positive, Julius, he reminded himself. Think positive.

When he was a freshman in high school he read online that eating an apple every morning had caffeinated qualities. That was probably bullshit but he’d gotten into a huge habit of eating apples every morning ever since. He liked to eat the entire fruit, core, and stem. It pissed off his friends but seeing their priceless reactions only encouraged him to do it even more. Besides, the cyanide in apple seeds isn’t really enough to kill anyone, anyway. They taste like almonds.

Ignoring the way that his pain was literally making him aware of where his ovaries were, he got to the kitchen and made his morning coffee. He grabbed a Nature Valley bar and some slices of disgusting bootleg Kraft Singles. If you thought Kraft Singles couldn’t get any worse, you’re wrong. You can find bootlegs at the dollar store that try to be Kraft Singles but somehow manage to taste even worse. Julius wasn’t much of a chef, and didn’t have much money to buy his own groceries. He just knew that he needed the starch and protein, and that he was going to take what he could get.

He noticed that these packages of bootleg Kraft Singles claimed to be swiss cheese, but it had absolutely no holes in it. That drove him bonkers but he ate it anyway. He hated to peel off the plastic but he never had the energy to cook.

He got dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a Legend of Zelda t-shirt. He hated morning classes but he had to get to his 9 AM computer programming class before it was too late. He grabbed his powder blue backpack and headed outside.

When he got outside there was melting snow on the ground. Portland doesn’t get much snow but it was well past the point where snow was exciting anymore. People thought it was weird that he didn’t wear a coat too often, but nobody really seemed to think much of it.

When he was a freshman in high school he once ate an apple that tasted exactly like water. He’d never eaten an apple like that again but somehow it managed to be one of the most unpleasant things he’d ever eaten. Which isn’t to say that water doesn’t taste good, or that there aren’t gross mushy apples which would taste worse.

The taste of water just doesn’t feel appropriate in the flesh of an apple. It needs that sweet sugar.

Mercury-Marvin Sunderland (he/him) is a transgender autistic gay man from Seattle with Borderline Personality Disorder. He currently attends the Evergreen State College and works for Headline Poetry & Press. He’s been published by University of Amsterdam’s Writer’s Block, UC Riverside’s Santa Ana River Review, UC Santa Barbara’s Spectrum, and The New School’s The Inquisitive Eater. His lifelong dream is to become the most banned author in human history. He’s @Romangodmercury on Instagram, Facebook, RedBubble, and Twitter.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

The Sussman Service

March 26, 2021

by Roz Weisberg

At Rachel’s first funeral for her father’s Uncle Milton, her mother leaned over and whispered, “Promise me when I die you won’t put your father on top of me. I’ll come back to haunt you.” Rachel nodded yes. She was ten. Ten years later, Rachel arranged the open casket, lavish spray of roses and lilies, and the details to make her mother look like a version of her alive self for the open casket. A hundred and fifty people moved from the chapel to the graveside where her mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Standing at attention, Rachel waited for her mother to scream from below reminding her of the consequences of breaking her promise.

Ten years and three months later, a closed casket, a modest spray of roses, a condensed twenty-minute graveside service where Rachel’s friends who never met her parents attended the burial of her father. Two groundskeepers wore blue jumpsuits and stood at the head and foot of the casket guiding it into another box as if it were a part of a Russian nesting doll set. The park insisted on the extra concrete box to protect the earth and preserve the casket, but Rachel thought it made it easier to mow the lawn. A third groundskeeper plunged the shovel into the mound of dirt. The rabbi recited the Kaddish, but Rachel could only hear the ringing of her mother’s shrill voice, “I told you not to put your father on top of me, I get claustrophobic.”

The rabbi’s words morphed together as he stepped up to Rachel in his black fedora and tore the pinned black ribbon over her heart. He stepped aside. When Rachel didn’t react, he cleared his throat and spoke her name. She didn’t quite hear him, her ears had been plugged for days, but followed his gesture. Stepping toward the graveside, the crisp air and bright bleached sunlight reminded her that it would soon be daylight savings though she wasn’t sure when the clocks were supposed to be turned back. She peered into the grave at the white concrete slab before taking the shovel and scooping up a blade’s worth of dirt. Steadying the wooden handle, she guided it over the hole, and with a last inhale gave her mother one last beat to air her discontent. Nothing. She flipped the shovel over; the rocks of dirt exploded and scattered against the cement. She plunged the shovel back into the dirt and returned to the white plastic folding chair.

The rabbi squinted, transfixed by something moving through the thin gathering. A hunched over old man in gray slacks shuffled up to the grave. His blazer too big, the arms to long. His small bald head sat on his shoulders as if he had no neck. Without turning around, he grabbed the shovel and scooped up some dirt, but the weight made him unsteady. One of the groundskeepers stepped out from behind the mound as the man coughed up and swallowed phlegm in the back of his throat and hoisted the shovel. It slipped from his grip, toppling into the grave. Before the old man fell forward, the groundskeeper pulled him back. The old man fell backwards on the groundskeeper.

Everyone gasped, their bodies jolted, the flimsy chairs legs gave out, and the first row collapsed like a row of dominos. The rabbi watched, frozen at the lectern. Rachel landed on her side. The other groundskeeper spoke into a walkie-talkie while another moved to help people stand up, dust themselves off and reset their chairs. The rabbi found his voice. “Is everyone alright?”

Rachel looked at the old man as she stood up. “Excuse me? Who are you?”

“Excuse you. Who the hell are you?” The groundskeeper had helped the old man stand.

It sounded as if the old man were speaking underwater. Rachel closed her eyes and took an audible breath, “This is Bernie Sussman’s funeral. My mother was Shirley.” Her own voice sound muted.

At the base of the hill a golf cart pulled up between the mourner’s cars. The driver in his blue suit got out and trekked up the hill.

“This is Stanley Leven’s funeral. Stanley was my wife’s second cousin. She couldn’t come, this hill woulda killed her.”

The man from the golf cart stepped up and introduced himself as the director.

“I’m here for Stanley’s funeral. Where the hell is Stanley?” The old man noticed the groundskeeper for the first time.

“I’m not sure sir. Why don’t I give you a ride and we can let these people continue their service?” The groundskeeper passed the old man’s arm to the director.

“Now, wait a minute. Let me think.” He tilted his head downward “Sussman you say?” He shook his head back and forth as if reading through an imaginary rolodex. “No, I don’t think I knew any Sussmans.” He tried pulling his arm away. “Must be the wrong funeral.” The old man took a last look in the hole, “That doesn’t look good.” He grabbed the director’s arm as if it were the bar on a walker and they waddled down the hill.

Rachel stepped to where the old man had stood and looked down. A groundskeeper grabbed a rake and maneuvered its teeth to pull up the shovel. Somehow, the metal edge of the shovel had chipped and cracked the concrete slab. A groundskeeper mumbled into his radio. Another golf cart arrived, another director climbed the hill.

The rabbi suggested he finish the service and offered final condolences, thanking the attendees. The mourners lingered as the director and groundskeepers conferred in a huddle. Rachel joined, glancing into to pit. The director explained, he’d never seen concrete crack like that, but he’d called for a replacement. Rachel was free to wait, but they weren’t sure how long it might take.

Rachel crossed her arms, the ringing in her ears echoed, “You promised me!”

The director tried to usher Rachel along, but she stood her ground. “I’ll go on my way as if nothing ever happened if you could reverse them. Put him in first and her on top.” She couldn’t gage the volume of her own voice though there some heads turned her way.

Her request was met with blank stares. The director mumbled into his radio and conferred with the groundskeepers before agreeing to the accommodation. Rachel turned to leave. Taking in the view of the paved LA River bed, her ears popped, the shrill ringing in her ear stopped as the groundskeepers lowered the crane and raised her mother’s concrete box.

Roz Weisberg is a recovering movie producer who went back to school and received her MFA at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She currently teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension, is a private writing coach/development editor and a writing specialist at Antioch.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Bullying, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

77, and Still

March 19, 2021
ribbon

By Ceresa Morsaint

It’s a chilly first night of Autumn, and she’s sitting on the bench hidden behind the playscape, where no one has to watch her cry. She adjusts the hat on her head, trying to keep her ears from freezing. She tries not to break her fragile nails, or agitate the arthritis in her right shoulder. And as she does, she feels a familiar ache in her arms, remembering the way she’d undo the ribbons in her hair, and leave the red, satin strips on the bench of the playground in her younger years. Mother would be so disappointed when she got home.

“I lost them playing tag!” She’d cry.

“Why do I even bother with the ribbons, Maria? Always ripping your stockings and losing your ribbons. You should be ashamed!” Her mother would curse in her Northern Irish accent. It made her laugh sometimes.

She wonders if her mother knew then what was really going on. Older boys don’t like girls with ribbons in their hair. She watches the swingset sway back and forth in the Autumn wind, and everywhere she goes, she only sees him. Her socks, now warm and fuzzy, were once long and laced. She tried visiting without them once. He didn’t like it.

“You look younger with your socks on. Keep it that way,” he smiled. She didn’t understand. But it made him happy, and so she kept wearing the long, laced, knee-high socks provided by angry catholic nuns from school. His words made her skin crawl.

“He can’t hurt me now,” she says. The words leave her lips and twirl in the air like loose paper. She says it, but why can’t she feel it?

“He’s dead, Maria. He can’t hurt you now.” She says, again. She still does not feel it.

From a distance, there is a crashing sound. A clank, maybe a thud. She jumps so hard, she nearly falls off the park bench and onto the cold cement floor.

“Christ, Maria.” She says to herself, “Should be over this by now. It’s only been 67 years, you old fool.” And though she says he can’t hurt her, he can’t even touch her, she’s still afraid. What if his ghost comes to haunt her? What if he’s playing dead to trick her into letting her guard down again?

“No,” she whispers “I’m too old for him, now.” Older boys don’t like girls with grey in their hair.

Ceresa Morsaint is a writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She studies American Sign Language and writes for a small newspaper, The Siren. Her work has been published in The Book Smuggler’s Den and The Scriblerus. In her spare time, she enjoys baking and reading Frank McCourt novels with her cat, Burt.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Paper Lessons

March 5, 2021
gran

By Maggie Bucholt 

Loretta watched her mother loading packages of toilet paper into a huge cardboard box, then folding yards of wrapping paper patterned with hot-pink roses around the monster parcel. Her mother’s lips twisted in a hateful way as she taped the seams and tied the box with a purple ribbon so dark it was almost black.

“Mom, it’s…” Loretta folded her arms across her chest, wondering if Frances had forgotten her pills—or swallowed too many. She frowned, searching for the right word. She was about to say mean, but thought better of it. “Why not give Gran a nice pocketbook?” She nibbled a cuticle on her thumb. A drop of blood appeared, and she licked it away.

Frances—as Loretta had started referring to her mother in her head—signed her name to the card. Gran’s birthday was Saturday, three days away. Frances tucked the card under the ribbon when she was finished. Skinny arms stuck out of her short-sleeved blouse, and there were deep circles under her eyes. Watching TV news images of wounded soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam kept up her up at night.

Loretta was desperate to leave for college in August, ten months away, ready to start her own life; she had put in her time taking care of Frances. But all she could think about was how her mother would fare when she left. She would have to convince Gran that Frances could live on her own and not have to return to that horrible place. The nurses with their plastic smiles and their squeaky orthopedic shoes, the padded rooms behind the corridor’s locked doors. The first time when Frances had gone away for a “rest,” she had come back subdued. After she returned this time, she had been acting weird, as if they had fried all the normal parts of her brain along with the sick ones.

Ignoring her, Frances stood back and examined her work. “The lady in the Hallmark store said the gift was a hoot. Maybe I should get a job on Newbury Street wrapping fancy presents.” Frances removed the bobby pin from her stringy hair and repinned it. Then she laughed, without joy. Ha, ha, ha. “It’d probably pay more than my job at the card shop.”

“You’re working?”

A job. Proof that her mother was doing well, despite the ridiculous gift. Loretta seesawed between hope and doubt that this job would last any longer than the others Frances had had in the past three years since the last hospital stay. She ticked the jobs off in her head: Saleswoman at Jordan Marsh in Boston, and cashier at the five-and-dime, waitress at the diner on the main street of their suburban town. Frances argued with everyone—supervisors and co-workers, her own mother, and Loretta. She found fault with the downstairs apartment in Gran’s two-family house and brought up every injustice, present and past: the broken change machine at the Laundromat to Gran’s refusal to let her prune the rosebushes to her husband dying young.

“Why not?” Frances said.

“I’m glad, Mom, really.”

“You should be. The sooner we start saving, the sooner we can leave, just you and me, the way we planned.”

“Don’t you get tired of saying the same thing every year?” The walls in the living room were as bare as the day they moved in ten years ago, after her father’s car accident. Don’t bother to hang anything up, Frances had said. We won’t be here long.

Her mother whipped out a large manila envelope from the drawer under the white Formica counter. She waved it near Loretta’s face. “What’s this, huh?”

Loretta snatched the envelope and glanced at the return address. The brochure from the university in Colorado. Would be a good fit, her art teacher had said. “That’s my mail. You know what it is.”

“Still dreaming, are you? Well, stop, because you’re not going. We’re leaving here together.”

“Gran is paying the tuition, paying for everything.”

“Did she tell you what to study too?”

“You never say anything nice about Gran.”

“Because there is nothing nice to say.”

“What about her letting us live here without paying rent, taking care of me when you were… away.”

“You’ll see.”

They glared at each other. Frances was the first to look away, and a moment later the tension lines around her mouth deepened. “Oh, go on. Get to your room. You spend enough time studying in there anyway. Brush your hair, will you? And stop biting those nails.”

“At least I wash my hair.” Loretta ran her hand over her thick, long hair that never lay flat. “At least, I… ” Worry about what will happen to you.

Loretta closed the bedroom door, grateful to be alone. The last of the sunlight filtered in between the blinds, casting dark bars onto the beige rug. A car horn beeped twice, a sharp sound that echoed down the street. She peeked through the blinds. Old Mr. Tierney pulling his Buick out of his driveway. The beeps were his farewell before driving to the VFW to drink away the pain of losing his son in Vietnam. Oh, she hated this crummy neighborhood, and especially Mr. Tierney’s mousy wife who asked in a pitying tone, “How is your poor mother?” as if she were ready to hear the truth. That gossip would murmur something falsely reassuring before turning away, like everyone Loretta had tried to confide in.

Father Donovan, she avoided too; he pretended not to understand her predicament, and whenever he stopped her to talk about faith or about the children’s art program where she had taught the previous two summers, his breath smelled as though he hadn’t brushed his teeth for a week. No, the faith she had was in herself, and the only thing she liked about mass was watching the votives that burned as insistently as her desire to leave home.

She set the college materials on the blue-gingham quilt and went to the bureau. Under the bottom drawer, she felt for the fat envelope taped there, savings from her two summers of working and from birthday gifts from Gran. Eight hundred and fifty dollars and twenty cents. The bills were crisp, new, like the life she envisioned far away from Frances. She replaced the money and slid the college materials under the mattress with the others before fixing the sheet, hospital cornered, the way Gran had taught her.

In the living room, Frances had her legs tucked up under her on the sofa, transfixed in front of the TV. Her cigarette case rested on the lace doily that hid the threadbare arm. A plume of smoke from her cigarette wafted up toward the ceiling.

“Where you going?”

“Upstairs.”

**

Loretta entered her grandmother’s apartment without knocking. The living room smelled of lemon polish, and the crowded apartment had everything Loretta and her mother’s didn’t: gold-framed bucolic scenes on the walls, heavy red-brocade drapes on the windows with sheer curtains underneath, a china cabinet with Waterford crystal, and a grandfather clock with handsome Roman numerals, Loretta’s favorite.

“Gran?”

“In the bedroom, sweetheart,” her grandmother called.

Her grandmother sat at a dressing table with a three-paneled mirror, smoothing cold cream over her plump cheeks and under her eyes, lifting, then straightening her silver-frame eyeglasses. The bottom of Gran’s tent-like, navy-blue dress, the kind that hid her fat stomach and thighs, grazed the carpeting.

“You hungry?” Gran said. “I was about to start dinner.”

“Mom’s making spaghetti,” Loretta said, not meeting her eyes. She hated to lie, but it was easier to let Gran think that her mother was able to boil water.

Loretta ran her fingertips over the polished dressing table with its little atomizers of fragrances, the cobalt-blue Evening in Paris bottle, and the tubes of lipsticks on a glass tray. The thought of seeing Paris, especially the Impressionist paintings, Degas, Monet, Cezanne, that she had read about in books, made her smile. It was a dream she hadn’t shared with Gran yet.

She perched on the edge of the bed and leaned back, resting on her hands. The deep green comforter was silky beneath her palms. Watching the rhythmic strokes of her grandmother’s hands putting on lotion was a soothing ritual that had started in her childhood. Gran would pick up Loretta’s small hand, press it to her lotioned cheek, then to her lips for a noisy kiss. It made Loretta laugh when she wanted to cry. Everything will be fine, Gran seemed to say. It was Gran who sewed the ripped shoulder of her Raggedy Ann doll, and washed and ironed the small dress and white apron. Gran who had helped her with homework. And it was Gran who had given her the little booklet after Loretta noticed pink spots on her underpants when was she was twelve.

Gran told her a story she had heard a gazillion times, and Loretta wondered if her grandmother would begin forgetting more and more things, the way old people did. It was the story of how Gran survived the death of her young husband so many years ago. Unlike Frances, Gran was quick to remind her, she had found a job in a factory, at a time when not many women worked. Eventually, Gran had met and married a widower, the grandfather Loretta knew, before being widowed again.

“I had to do what was best for me.” Gran gazed at Loretta over the tops of her glasses. “You, too, have to figure things out, think of yourself.”

“Yes, Gran.” Loretta started to chew on a fingernail, before her grandmother gave her a warning look. She dropped her hand.

“Because no one else will.” Gran turned this way and that in the mirror, examining her wrinkled face before wiping the excess cream from her misshapen arthritic fingers. “How are things at school?”

“A’s in English, history, and biology.” Loretta plopped back onto the bed, pleased that her grandmother listened carefully as she talked. But an A- in math. She vowed to study harder, when she wasn’t taking care of Frances—she didn’t do sports or afterschool clubs. “I asked each teacher what was expected for me to get an A, and then I made a list and completed the extra assignments.”

She never mentioned she ate alone in the cafeteria or the bitchy girls who never invited her to their tables. She imagined the way they saw her: a too-tall girl who kept to herself and painted posters for school plays. Instead she talked about the library book with the glossy photos of the works of Monet.

Gran nodded approvingly. “You’re serious, not like your mother, marrying your father before she graduated. She could have finished college, if she let me help her. Stubborn, too stubborn she was. You know, your mother was always… different. I suppose losing your father was too much. Goodness, the shock was too much for me.”

“Mom is making an effort,” she said, feeling hopeful. It wasn’t as though she didn’t love Frances; her mother was the only parent she had left, not counting Gran. “Mom’s ….” She stopped. She would tell Gran about the job at the card store only if it lasted more than a week.

Loretta jumped up and from behind, wrapped her long arms around her grandmother’s bosomy frame, conscious of her height—tall like her father, Gran always said. She put her cheek to her grandmother’s and rocked her back and forth, eyeing both their reflections in the mirror. Gran, her short gray hair done up at the beauty parlor every week; and she, Loretta, with hair ballooning around her thin face, was about to start the rest of her life.

“Oh, you’re being so cool, Gran, about college and all.”

“I want you to begin your life the right way. Plenty of good colleges close by, in Boston.”

“Around here?” Her voice faltered. They had never talked about where she would attend college, and she was taken aback. “A university out west is what I was thinking. I’ve never been there, of course.” She was excited by the prospect of studying in a place she had never been, of traveling to Paris after college graduation. “I don’t know about Boston.”

“Think about it.” Gran patted her arm.

Later, Loretta sat on the back porch steps with the sketchbook and charcoal pencil for the preliminary drawing of the cardinal. A lone leaf zigzagged toward the ground. The bird in the denuded maple tree cocked its head, as though it were waiting for her to begin. A sketch for her senior art portfolio. Focus. She inhaled deeply. Focus. Empty your mind, the art teacher said, when she struggled with a sketch in the art room. Let your hand work its magic over the paper.

But she was unable to draw, her thoughts ricocheting from dissuading Frances on Gran’s present to convincing Gran about Colorado to improving the application essay so she would be accepted. Tomorrow she would show Gran the brochure and talk up the Art History major. Long after the cardinal flew away, she stayed where she was, staring into the autumn twilight.

**

The following afternoon, Loretta was home from school late, and when she heard Gran’s voice in the living room, her insides somersaulted. Gran’s birthday was two days away. Why was she here? She jabbed her jacket onto the brass hook. Gran hadn’t been inside the apartment in months.

Frances was on the sofa, legs crossed, the couch springs squeaking in rhythm with her wobbling foot. She had on a flower-print dress that Loretta hadn’t seen her wear in a long time. The red lipstick, smeared outside the natural contour of her lips, looked as though it been applied by a three-year-old. Frances’ tremulous smile was so wide, Loretta thought her face might crack.

Gran, her posture straight as a knife, sat on a kitchen chair; the sofa was too low for Gran. Gran shot Loretta an accusing look. Why didn’t you tell me?

“Loretta sweetheart, isn’t it nice your mother is working again?”

Frances turned to Loretta and raised an eyebrow. The eyebrow almost reached the uneven part in her hair.

“Yes, it is.” Loretta glanced nervously at the mammoth box with the dark-purple ribbon on the TV console. She still had to figure out what to do and quickly. She tugged down the hem of her sweater and perched next to Frances on the sagging seat, smoothing her plaid skirt over her knees.

“You feel up to doing this, this job?” Gran grasped the strap of the big black purse in her lap. She snapped the clasp open and closed, open and closed. Click, click. Click, click.

“She’s doing fine, aren’t you, Mom?” But Loretta could see her mother didn’t appear fine at all and, worse, Gran could too. Frances’s gaze darted around the room, and she pressed a folded piece of paper into her lap.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise, Mother,” Frances said, a slow flush spreading up her neck to her face.

“Now Frances, I didn’t mean anything by it.” Gran winked at Loretta. In her own way, Gran was trying.

  “Don’t start, Mother,” Frances said. “That’s not why I invited you in.”

“No, then why did you?” Gran gazed at Frances over her glasses that had fallen to the middle of her nose.

Frances’s foot bobbed faster. And Loretta tensed. She leaned over and whispered, “Don’t give Gran the present. Please.” Her mother struggled away from her.

“To say that we will be moving out as soon as I save some money,” Frances said.

Loretta groaned inwardly. She had heard the argument many, many, many times before. But at least she hadn’t given her the birthday present. Don’t say anymore, Mom. Don’t.

Gran seemed to consider this without rancor and adjusted the purse on her lap. “I see. And what apartment do you think you can afford, on a card-store salary?”

“Here’s the budget,” Frances said, her tone triumphant. She unfolded the paper and dropped into Gran’s lap. “An apartment’s for rent a few blocks from here.”

“Mom.” A flare of hope sparked in her chest.

Gran adjusted her glasses and made a show of studying the numbers. “This isn’t going to work.” Her words sliced the air.

Frances’s lipsticked mouth worked, but no sound came out. She sank onto the sofa and crossed her legs, staring into space. Loretta could tell by her grandmother’s stricken gaze that she knew she had gone too far and didn’t know the way back.

“Gran, come on, it’s a start,” Loretta said quietly. “You could help with a plan.”

Frances shot up, and before Loretta could whisper in her ear that this wasn’t the right time, Frances snatched the huge birthday present from the console and placed it at Gran’s feet. Frances’s smile was as gleeful as a mischievous child.

“For your birthday, Mother,” Frances said. “A couple of days early.”

“Why, thank you, Frances,” Gran said. A look of astonishment, then happiness flickered across her plump cheeks.

Loretta slid her moist palms down her skirt as Gran tore off the dark ribbon and wrapping paper. Gran sorted through the packages of toilet paper as if she were searching for something. Was there a real present hidden among the paper that she was missing?

  “A little joke. Right, Mom?” Loretta, her face hot, tried to laugh.

“I don’t see the humor.” Gran’s thin lips pursed.

“You get what you deserve, you mean old thing!” Frances started laughing, the same mirthless sound as when she had wrapped the toilet paper.

“Mom, stop.” Loretta tried to put her arms around her thin shoulders, but Frances pushed back in an irritated way, a smirk on her face.

Gran stood up to leave, trembling.

“Gran, wait.” Loretta was desperate to do something, anything to lessen the animosity. She ran to her bedroom for the bright yellow box with the black fancy script, the Jean Nate gift set she had bought, and at the last moment stuffed the university brochure into her skirt pocket.

“Happy birthday, Gran.” Loretta handed her the present. “I, I didn’t get a chance to wrap it.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.” Gran swayed a little, holding her purse and the yellow-and-black box. “You’re a good girl, a very smart girl.”

Gran had fixed her gaze on Frances, and Loretta stiffened. “Gran, let’s go.”

“Which is why Loretta will do well at college,” Gran said.

“Mind your own business, Mother.”

“Won’t you do well, Loretta?” Gran said, turning to her, with fiery eyes.

Loretta wished she were outside sketching the cardinal. Or unpacking her things in the dorm at the university in Colorado. Or painting the long view of the Eiffel Tower from the banks of the Seine.

“Come on, I’ll walk you up,” she said, and steered Gran toward the door.

Upstairs, she stood near the grandfather clock and trimmed a fingernail with her teeth. For once, Gran didn’t scold her about biting her nails. Gran moved slowly to hang her coat in the closet. Neither of them spoke. Gran seemed to collapse into the dining room chair.

“Mom’s doing OK, she does have that job.” Loretta hoped she sounded convincing.

Gran sighed and opened her arms, and Loretta moved in for an awkward embrace. She could smell Gran’s lavender-scented lotion.

“Did you think about what I said? About Boston?” Gran ran her hand over the polished surface to the table, brushing away imaginary crumbs.

Loretta pulled out the colorful brochure. “Colorado, see for yourself. The college has an Art History major and I…”

Gran shook her head. “Come now, sweetheart, did you think I wouldn’t be the one to decide? I will be paying for everything.”

“I didn’t realize that meant I couldn’t go where I want.”

“Look at you, getting all upset. I’m your champion, sweetheart. All I’m saying is that the college has to be closer to home.”

Loretta shifted from one foot to another, feeling miserable. “Because that’s best for you, Gran,” she spat. “That’s not fair.”

“Not for me, either.” Gran gave her a wan smile. “I can’t take care of her forever. I’m not getting any younger.”

Back downstairs, Loretta emptied a can of tomato soup into a pot and added water, trying to swallow the panic that stuck in her throat. The blue flame flickered under the pot. She had fooled herself into thinking she would be free, first at college, then after graduation. Free to do what she pleased, live wherever she liked. The realization that she could not left her cold. She stirred the soup with a wooden spoon. The soup sloshed over the sides. Mom had to eat something, had to feel better. She hoped the aroma would lure Frances into the kitchen. At the table, she opened her loose-leaf and turned to the unfinished college essay for Colorado, the one giving her the most trouble, perhaps because it was her first choice. Empty your mind, focus. But she couldn’t shake off the dread. Of course Gran expected her to take care of Frances when Gran no longer could. There was no one else.

“So what do you talk about with your grandmother when you’re up there?” Frances stood in the doorway, one hand on her hip. Loretta was surprised that Frances seemed fine, as though all she needed was a few moments rest to clear her head and change her vengeful mood.

“School, stuff.” She shoved the essay into her loose-leaf. She had gotten good at hiding the truth. The soup gurgled and the tomato-y scent filled the kitchen, and she stirred the pot. She had expected shouting, angry words from her mother, not this. An argument she could deal with. A self-pitying mother, she couldn’t.

Her mother lit a cigarette and shook the match until the flame died. She inhaled deeply, and smoke shot out of the side of her mouth. “You’re going to leave, aren’t you?”

Loretta didn’t answer. She got out two white bowls from the cupboard, ladled steaming soup into one, and set it on the table. Frances slipped into a chair and balanced her cigarette on the lip of the glass ashtray. She dipped the spoon into the soup. Halfway to her lips, she dropped the spoon back into the bowl, splashing soup all over the table.

“Mom, you’ll do fine.” Loretta wiped up the soup with a wet sponge. Another lie. Shame washed over her. “You can save money like you said and move, if that’s what you want to do,” she said, wishing she could believe her own words. “You don’t need me.”

Frances sucked on her cigarette, eyeing Loretta. “That store needs a better manager. I told the woman she could ask me whatever she wanted, that I’d help her run the place. She got all huffy.”

Loretta filled a bowl for herself and tasted the soup. The soup had a bitter, metallic taste, as if she had boiled nickels along with the tomatoes. She listened to her mother complain about the smart-alecky salesmen and the lumpy grilled cheese sandwich she had for lunch at the diner where she used to waitress. At last Frances stubbed out her cigarette, and all Loretta could feel was relief that the terrible moment, when she feared hearing the words I do need you, had passed.

**

At lunchtime the next day, Loretta shifted in a hard-seated chair at the guidance counselor’s office, one of two chairs that faced Mr. Crowley’s desk. The desk was cluttered with pens, pencils, forms, and a half-eaten, smelly tuna sandwich. Piles of college catalogues were lined up with precision on the floor.

“I’m having trouble with this essay for Colorado, my top choice.” Loretta pushed the two-page draft for the university in Colorado across his desk. “Could you take a look at it?”

“Certainly, give me a moment,” he said. He was a short man with a round face and a snub nose. The kids called him Porky behind his back. He jotted notes in the margins. After a few moments, he reviewed the essay, point by point, and suggestions to add why sketching and painting were so important to her.

“I have no doubt you’ll be admitted to a good college with your grades.” As he talked, he rubbed at a stain on his green-striped tie. “Have a backup plan, besides Colorado. Did you want me to review the other essays and applications?”

“I’ve already finished three.” Loretta tucked the essay into her loose-leaf. “They’re at home.”

“Good girl. I know they’re lengthy.”

“You, ah, said something about financial aid, when I came in before. My grandmother offered to pay but I’m not sure about.…”

“It can’t hurt to apply for financial aid, no matter what your resources. Colleges offer grants based on aptitude as well as need.”

He handed her a thick packet, and she listened carefully as he explained the different federal grants and work study. She thanked him and stuffed the daunting paperwork into her loose-leaf, hoping she wouldn’t have to fill out those applications too; she still hoped to persuade Gran about Colorado.

“I tried telephoning your mother, so she could be here.” Mr. Crowley nodded at the empty chair.

“She’s working, Loretta said quickly. “She won’t have time.”

“I can help you start filling out the aid forms, if you like. Just come in again.”

Back home after school, Loretta opened the front door and heard the soft, unmistakable sound of weeping coming from Frances’s bedroom. She dropped her bag and struggled out of her jacket. Disappointment knifed her insides. Frances had been fired. Why else would her mother be home before five o’clock? She ran down the hall and pressed her ear to Frances’s door. She knocked lightly.

“Mom?” She tried the doorknob. Locked. She waited, resting her forehead against the doorframe. “It doesn’t matter,” she said through the crack, willing herself to sound upbeat. “You know I love you, right?”

The wailing turned to loud sniffles.

“You can find something else. Mom?”

In the kitchen, she sipped a glass of milk and nibbled an Oreo. She would have to help Frances get past this setback, find the right job. Only she didn’t know how. The scribbling on the pad by the telephone caught her eye. An enormous X crossed out Mr. Crowley. A panicky feeling swept over her, and she hurried to Frances’s door. She stood outside, biting a nail, contemplating what she could say, something to soften the truth. But nothing came to her. She sighed. Frances would have to hold her own when she was gone.

Loretta opened the door to her own room, bent on making Mr. Crowley’s suggestions to her essay, and flipped on the light switch. She stood stock-still. Her sketches were torn from the wall, her dresser drawers emptied and left half open, her sweaters and underwear strewn on the floor, along with the blue-checked quilt. Balled up in the corner were her bed sheets, and her mattress hung off the box spring at an odd angle.

A pile of cut-up paper and the kitchen scissors were on top of the naked mattress. She picked up a sliver of paper with her name still visible. The essays and carefully filled-out applications had been shredded into millions of pieces. Her heart banged against her ribcage. She rushed to the bureau and pulled out the bottom drawer. The thick envelope with the money was still taped to the bottom. She shoved the envelope into her waistband of her skirt. She ran down the hall and pounded on Frances’ door with her fist—bam, bam, bam—until the side of her hand ached.

“How could you?” she shouted. Her pulse drummed in her ears. “I’ve always helped you, been on your side.”

No answer. She rattled the knob in frustration, picturing how Frances, her face blotchy red with rage, had overturned everything, cut all the paper with the same expression of gleeful revenge she had worn when presenting Gran with the monster package of toilet paper.

She flew up the stairs to Gran’s, her chest heaving, but at the top, she stopped and stared at the closed door. A college closer to home, Gran had said. I will be paying for everything. She gripped the banister, sick at heart and frightened. When had she ever been able to change Gran’s mind about anything? Gran would expect her to stay after graduation, too, find a job, and do what she had always done to keep Frances out of that dreadful place. Loretta turned and started downstairs as though she were sleepwalking.

In the apartment, she picked up the sketchpad and charcoal pencil and went out to the back porch. The sun was low in the sky and she gulped the cold, fresh air. She sank onto the wooden steps. From the Tierneys next door, she heard the grating sound of a metal rake and the rustle of brittle leaves. She glanced over. Mrs. Tierney was focused on clearing a path to the street. The lifeless leaves had been raked into organized piles.

The envelope in her waistband pressed into her side, and she placed a protective hand over the money for a moment, her mind churning with everything she had to do—she would ask Mr. Crowley for help with the paperwork—and the lies that she would have to tell until she left. She would learn to forgive herself for leaving Frances, the way she had learned everything else that Gran had taught her.

She opened the sketchpad and smoothed a new sheet of paper. The solitary cardinal appeared, bright red against the maple’s dark bough, and seemed to watch her. She assessed the cardinal, making tentative strokes at first. The strokes became bolder, deeper as the image of the cardinal took shape on the page. The body, the sharp beak, the unblinking black eyes. Then she drew the bird’s legs, fragile but strong.

Maggie Bucholt a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and was awarded a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to work on her novel. A story, “Deer’s Leap,” was a finalist in the Arts & Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture fiction contest. Her credits include an essay, “Rhyming Action in Alice Munro Short Stories,” in The Writer’s Chronicle, and “Death and the Desire to Live Deliberately,” in Desire: Women Write About Wanting, published by Seal Press.

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Deus ex Machina

February 19, 2021
foggy road brenda

By Richard Weems

Steve and Brenda had come separately to the same conclusion: they both wanted out of their marriage, which they had honed over the last three years into a science of spending as little time alone together as possible. Steve had basketball at the Y, Brenda had spin classes. Never an argument when one stayed late at the office. Separate televisions. He kissed her on the temple when he climbed into bed. She squeezed his wrist. Movie nights always with friends. During sex, they focused only on their individual needs. No pets, not even fish. Nothing that couldn’t be easily designated as his or hers. When they planned poorly and were stuck having dinner together, she commented favorably on the bordeaux he’d researched and breathed properly; he hummed approval at every spoonful of her Grand Marnier souffle.

They had both decided to break the news during their annual drive north to her folks in South Greeley, the one place no one expected them to spend time together. She had her sisters and mother to giggle and drink mimosas with, her nephews and nieces to take out for ice cream. Steve discussed baseball with his father-in-law, who was a tiresome optimist about the Rockies, or volunteered for every errand so he could drive around Cheyenne and marvel at the ways it fell short of being a proper city.

But with a three and a half hour drive in front of them, each had to strategize the optimal approach to most effectively end their marriage. Brenda worried she’d back out once faced with Steve’s hushed anger, so she burned her boat, so to speak. As soon as they merged onto route 25, she asked Steve for the ETA. He pointed his chin at the GPS. “I’ll let them know,” she said, but instead she texted her sisters and mother, Big news, and refused to respond to their question marks and interrobangs, to force herself to blurt before they arrived: “Steve, I’ll stay in Greeley while you move out.” Maddy had long suggested, in less than subtle ways, that Brenda could do better (“So, Brenny, when you’re looking for your next man…”). Mom was a tougher read, but when Zabby, the oldest, once confided that she felt entrenched with Ken, her  know-it-all chiropractor who refused to go anywhere he couldn’t be the center of attention, Mom spoke into her glass:

“Not until Sid and Sylvia,” their twin teens, “start college, I hope.”

So Brenda wasn’t worried about her family’s reaction, but still, with every mile marker, she felt her resolve weaken, until she wondered what news she could drum up when Maddy reached through the car window and squeezed her wrist with expectation.

Steve played the audiobook of a spy thriller to pass the time, but they had barely passed Colorado Springs, a third of the way, when he could no longer stand the reader’s tiresome lilt during the so-called action sequences, where another smartmouthed operative with yet another weapon speciality showed up every twenty minutes on the dot. He had planned to start his speech when they’d reached the halfway mark (“Brenda, you know I love you and I’m glad we got married…”), to give them time to work through the emotional guff and have things arranged rationally when he dropped her off in front of her parents’ and headed back on his own. He hated when she cried. He always felt duty-bound to comfort her, and being the cause of her tears could be too much for him. Every minute of silence felt like they were back to dating–another moment of fear about taking the plunge and saying what he thought (five miles ago) he should have started saying by now. She was even on her phone, scrolling and grinning at someone else.

***

The first sign of trouble was the oncoming traffic with their headlights at full blast, their hoods and tops glistening, their wipers clearing bactrian humps on the windshields. The forecast had called for a forty percent chance of storms, but that was typical for July, especially in this humidity.

In the sun, the oncoming cars gleamed with relief.

“Something’s up ahead,” Steve muttered. Brenda looked up from her phone and squinted as though there was something to see beyond the next overpass.

And suddenly, there was.

It was the kind of storm that generated sudden exclamation points on the doppler–wind, hail, and was that a bump of rotation in the cloud?  That turned the sky green, pelted a path across the highway, and had timed its manifestation when there wasn’t another overpass in miles. Steve settled into a new kind of silence, that of survival, his focus their best hope against the wind that was already nudging their top-heavy jeep. A prefatory lightning bolt elicited a close-mouthed gasp from Brenda as she gripped the oh shit handle on the ceiling. Steve reverted to Driver’s Ed days and clasped the wheel at 10 and 2 as they plunged into the fierce weather.

At the smack of wind and fierce ice, Brenda expected to see a Brahma bull out her window. Their Wrangler leaned, but they will disagree to what extent by the time they get to South Greeley: one will say they were a hairsbreadth from permanent disfigurement, the other no worse than a Disney rollercoaster. They will hold hands as squish together in the living room chaise longue and tell her family their conflicting accounts. They will talk over each other, correct each other rudely, kiss and laugh while kissing. They will continue to argue the whole ride home with nary a silent gap and alternate who squeezes whose thigh.

When the cloud released them and the wall of hail ambled to the east, Steve watched it go, unable to unclench his fists, his fight/flight system dialed to eleven. Brenda released the ceiling handle so she could jackhammer her fist into the paltry padding above and scream,

“Again!”

Richard Weems is the author of three short fiction collections: Anything He Wants (finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize), Stark Raving Blue and From Now On, You’re Back. Recent appearances include North American Review, Aquifer, 3Elements Review, Flash Fiction Magazine and Tatterhood Review. Richard lives and teaches in New Jersey.

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Verge, by Lidia Yuknavitch, is out in paperback. These short stories will grip your heart and mind.  The writing is sharp and the empathetic portraits of broken people will stay with you long after you finish the collection.

If you haven’t already, pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Little Buddy

February 12, 2021
creature

By W. T. Paterson

The chill in the air settled against the fading blue sky as Porter lugged an ancient wooden storm panel around the side of the house. The cold sand shifted under his boots turning each step into an arthritic nightmare for his knees. It felt like the end of an era. The summer house that once teemed with life now sat empty and cold leaving only the rat-a-tat knocking of a pesky woodpecker that wreaked yearly havoc on the panels. Buddy, his son, had always helped with the end-of-season board-up, specifically shooing away the bird, but the boy had moved to the big city for a fancy hospital job and Porter was lucky if he got a phone call every other month. Minnie, his wife, took over their Massachusetts house after her therapist suggested a trial separation now that Buddy had grown. Minnie agreed before Porter could weigh in and all but exiled him to his family’s seaside cottage in Maine for the winter. A quarter-century worth of marriage dissolved like a cruel magic trick. One moment things were fine, and the next the veil lifted to reveal the great absence of a used-to-be.

The wooden panel slid into the de-screened slot and hooked into place with rusted latches. Porter rested his sore shoulders and aching back and looked out across the empty beach. The calm ocean barely rippled, more lake than tidal beast roaring with surf. With the summer crowds gone, the small town barely stirred. A part of him believed that being holed up in the place for the winter would bring some clarity to the situation, that the isolation would do him good until the rat-a-tat started up again.

Porter wiped his brow and then slapped the boards. The thick panels shook, and the knocking ceased.

He stepped outside and around the house toward the bulkhead for the final panels, and that’s when he saw it; the creature hiding near the cement foundation of his neighbor’s place. A baby dinosaur, a dilophosaurus by the looks and no bigger than a housecat, watched with cautious curiosity. Its yellow skin with red-striped belly sniffed the air through a long, ridged snout. The creature gave Porter a weak warning growl to reveal a curved row of small, jagged teeth.

“Monsters,” Porter said under his breath, and shook his head at the wealthy summer goers like the Hartwells who loved to buy exotic pets in the spring only to decide they didn’t want them come fall. Instead of heading to proper shelters, they stuck the creatures outside to fend for themselves and left town without so much as a second thought. One year, animal control wrangled a Chupacabra after reports of missing cats piled up, and a few years later, the carcass of a tiger was found in the snowy dunes frozen and starved. Finding the small dinosaur was, unfortunately, par for the course.

Porter closed the rusty bulkhead and went inside even though he wasn’t finished. He held his fingers under warm water to melt the stiffness in the joints and considered phoning the town. From the kitchen window, he watched the dinosaur sniff around and make chirping noises, neck craned and eyes large as the shadows of the houses stretched over the dunes and onto the empty beach.

*

The dark autumn sky swallowed the day. No one at the town hall had answered when he called, so Porter left a voicemail requesting that someone collect the dino. Poor thing won’t survive the cold, he said. It’s their blood. They need the heat. Porter wasn’t sure how he knew this, but he knew it to be true. Leftover details from his childhood fascination with predators perhaps, or something pulled from Buddy’s picture book filled with sharks and crocodiles and yetis and wolves.

That book was still upstairs, he was almost certain. They read it together every summer until Minnie complained that Buddy should turn his interests toward more sophisticated prose and came home with books about the anatomy, and physiology, and medicine. She tucked the book out of reach where it collected dust and rendered the sturdy pages fragile.

What an odd thing to remember at a time like this, Porter thought as he sat on the well-worn and sun-beaten couch. The muted television glowed with his favorite trivia show as static crackled across the screen. He waited for the phone to ring. He watched in quiet until the contestants shouted with glee as a big-money gamble paid off huge. They danced and twirled and pumped their hands up and down like they had just gotten married, like they had a few glasses of fine wine and a belly full of prime rib and sauntered to the dancefloor still believing the person they married was who they believed they were, that an office job wasn’t built to turn a man inside out, that unconditional love could actually heal a person, that paying hand-over-fist for a future that benefited everyone but themselves was a noble path. “Dreamers,” Porter said, and tried to will himself into a nap. That type of happiness made him uncomfortable. It was exhausting, a game for the young. It was why those trivia shows never cast anyone over thirty, because anyone older knew the that the world was a limited path with nothing but forced naps that wouldn’t come in a cold and empty house inside of a town that only lived for a single season.

When the evening news came on and the weather forecasted only cold days ahead, Porter went into the kitchen to scrounge up some dinner. In a cupboard was an unopened box of Rainb-O’s cereal, buddy’s favorite. He purchased a new box every year in the hopes that his son would visit and they could both share a bowl like the old days. He didn’t want to open the box, just in case.

In the back of the freezer, he found two steaks so frozen and frostbitten that they could hammer a nail. He took one out and ran it under the faucet resigning to finish installing the panels in the morning. Over the hiss of the tap, he could faintly make out the lonely wail of the baby dinosaur somewhere outside.

“Poor thing,” Porter said, and against his better judgement, filled an unused bamboo salad bowl with water and walked outside. At the base of the front steps, he put the bowl on the ground and whistled for the creature. The long, gravel driveway wound around sleepy dune grass, cut through overgrown lawn grass, and intersected with a paved road lined with tall pines. The neighboring houses stood like vacated caverns. Crickets pulsed in the chilly air like the slow breath of a sleeping giant. A moment later at the edge of the shadow, the dilophosaurus poked it’s head out from a patch of cratered dunes and sniffed the air. Porter clicked his tongue and pointed at the water. The small creature took hesitant steps and growled a curious growl.

“Atta boy,” Porter said, and watched the creature approach. “Don’t get used to it, though. Done enough charity for this lifetime.”

The idea turned him sour. Why did he always have to do things for the benefit of others? Why was it his responsibility to fix things? There was that time at the restaurant where Minnie had a little too much and started in.

“We should call and check on Buddy,” she said.

“He’s an adult, Min, he’s fine,” Porter said, feeling the night balance on the edge of Minnie’s fragile mood.

“People can be adults and still drown in the bathtub, Porter,” Minnie said, cupping the wine glass with such ferocity that it was a miracle the thing didn’t shatter.

“Ok. We can go,” Porter whispered, and put on his winter coat. He tossed an extra-large cash tip onto the table in an unspoken attempt to smooth things over with their server – a college girl with large eyes and full lips.

“He thinks money will buy you,” Minnie said, stumbling through the slurred words as the server picked empty plates from the table. “But he’s not your type, is he?”

The server went flush and smiled politely, and something about the reaction made Minnie go ice age. She didn’t talk to him for the rest of the night.

In the morning, she knew she had done something, but couldn’t remember what.

“Jog my memory,” she pleaded, rubbing her head. “You’re upset, and I can’t change if I can’t remember.”

“Said some things is all,” Porter mumbled, and twisted the gold wedding band around his finger to let the feeling go extinct.

A chill ran Porter’s spine, so he turned suddenly to go back inside. It startled the dinosaur and the creature reared back on its small hind legs. A scaley umbrella-like mane shot out from the sides of its head. It rattled like a snake, an unmistakable warning.

“Oh please,” Porter laughed. “Been married for nearly three decades. Know what that does to a man? Teeth don’t scare me, pal.”

He chuckled his way up the cold and creaking steps and closed the door inside. As he turned the porch light off, he watched through the glass as the small dinosaur retracted its mane, approached the bowl with curious eyes, and gulped down the water.

That salad bowl was a wedding gift, Porter thought. What an odd thing to remember at a time like this.

*

Just past sunrise, the rat-a-tat returned—a crude wooden alarm to usher in the rising coastal sun. Porter pulled the thinning comforter over his eyes and tried to ignore piercing rap, but the tapping pushed awake-ness through his eyelids like the slow drip of a hangover. His bones ached, the fossilized remains of a great used-to-be. Once a man so sturdy he could board up the home by himself breaking a sweat, he now struggled to sit upright in bed. All those years in an office behind a desk staring into sheets and memos and computer screens left little behind, and what remained had eroded into sun damaged skin and liver spots.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter slid out of bed still in jeans from the day before and shoved his wool-socked feet into tired work boots.

“I’m up,” he grunted, and wiped the last bit of sleep from his eyes. He put on the same flannel as yesterday and walked downstairs. The bones of the quiet home creaked with every thumping step, the arthritic walls wailing and moaning too. With day old coffee sitting cold in the cloudy glass pot, Porter poured the thick mass into a mug and tossed it into the microwave. A single spotted banana stared at him from the fruit bowl and he considered the possibility, but instead watched the digital seconds count down until the ding produced a steaming cup of bitter jet-fuel. After one sip, he knew it had turned but he finished the mug as to not be wasteful before heading outside to finish the job.

A familiar dull pain pulled at the muscles between Porter’s shoulders as he lugged another wooden panel from the bulkhead to the side of the house. Two more, and then he could shelter without worry of those winter storms.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter shoved the panel into the sand below an open slot and huffed. He wanted to confront that damn bird, the constant pecking and relentless picking, but what good would that do anyone? No matter what he felt, the bird always came back and the rat-a-tat became a wooden, mocking laughter. At least with Buddy around, the boy could chase the bird through the cool and crunching dunes until he got tired, or bored, wanted to help with the panels. But Minnie always came outside demanding that Porter do something about the incessant, belligerent, ridiculous racket.

“It’s fine, Minnie,” Porter would say.

“Some people come here to relax. Some people need quiet reflection,” she’d say, and flap back inside chirping about how she married the only man in the world who couldn’t stand up to a bird. Buddy would watch from the dunes with large, confused eyes until Porter explained that it would have been Uncle Marius’s birthday.

“Oh,” the boy would say, and spend the rest of the afternoon quietly chasing birds, and bugs and while his father boarded.

Now, as Porter turned the corner of the boarded-up porch, he saw the small dinosaur crouched in the grass watching the gnawing woodpecker.

“Get!” Porter said and swiped at the bird. The dinosaur tilted its head. The woodpecker did a quick loop in the sky and swooped back onto the sill with an anarchic rat-a-tat. Porter’s blood boiled and his ears went hot.

“I said…” he shouted, and the bird took off again. This time, as it swooped over the dunes, the young dilophosaurus expanded its scaley mane and spit a dark glob of venomous, paralyzing phlegm, which wrapped the bird and brought it crashing out of mid-air. The woodpecker landed lifelessly in the nearby sand. The baby creature trotted over and ate the remains with big, proud bites and then looked at Porter with glistening, hopeful eyes.

“Not bad, little buddy,” he said, and though he couldn’t be sure, it looked like the creature smiled at the compliment.

For the rest of the morning, the dinosaur walked along the sand and dunes chasing away seagulls, butterflies, and crickets that came too close as Porter fixed the final wooden panels into place.

At lunch, Porter cooked the other remaining steak, but something chewed at his wandering thoughts. The spotted banana eyed him from the fruit bowl, and Porter knew that sometimes cooking for one was really cooking for two. He slapped the steak onto a Corelle plate and popped outside. The dino poked its head out from between long blades of dune grass.

“Eat up, you done good today” he said, and balanced the plate on the bottom step of the stoop. The creature sniffed the air, eyed Porter, and scampered out to devour the cooked meat. Porter peeled the yellow banana back and ate the sweet fruit—though he didn’t enjoy it—happy to be able to lend his talents to an appreciative crowd.

“If I let you in, you gonna be good?” Porter asked. The dinosaur looked up and continued chewing. “You gonna be good? If you come inside? You’ll be a good boy?” The creature pondered the question like it understood, and finally chirped as it stepped toward Porter’s knee. He gave it a gentle head-butt. Porter reached down and rubbed the top of the scaley head with his tired, heavy hands. “You’re a good boy.”

The baby dinosaur leaned back and sneezed. A tiny fleck of black, venomous phlegm landed on Porter’s knuckle and burned the skin with a terribly, fiery pain.

“Sweet mother of mercy,” he said, rubbing his fist on his jeans. The creature shrank with alarm when it realized what it had done, eyes wide with a different kind of hurt. “Ain’t your fault, boy,” Porter said. “It’s just how you are.” He stood to walk inside, and then whistled. The dilophosaurus perked up and followed, trotting next to Porter’s knees but never crossing in front.

*

Porter started to suspect that something was different that evening. Not wrong, but different. The dinosaur took a wheezing nap against the electric baseboard heater of the thin-walled coastal home. Upon awaking, he watched Porter as though trying to communicate something.

“You hungry?” Porter asked, and the sound of his voice seemed to put the creature at ease. The young dinosaur rolled to his feet and tip-toed over to the couch and placed his scaley and unusually heavy chin on the top of Porter’s thigh. Porter smiled and rubbed the creature’s rough and uneven head. He noted the retracted mane on the neck like wrinkled skin and wondered at nature’s design. The dilophosaurs relaxed into comfort, but the type of comfort that stems from concern and, he wasn’t sure how, but Porter could sense it like a light left on in a room he was no longer using.

When he moved his leg, the creature stepped back and followed him into the kitchen where the man pan-fried a chicken breast and put it in a ceramic cereal bowl – the big one that Buddy always filled to the brim with colorful Rainb-O’s but could never finish, until the year that Minnie insisted he switch over to something more nutritious like sausage and hash browns.

“A growing boy needs protein,” she said. “You keep giving him this, he’ll stay small forever, and be fragile, and his bones will be weak.”

“Ok,” Porter said like a deflating balloon, because every fight with Minnie was an unwinnable task. She fought with the fury and guilt over her wheelchair-bound brother Marius who drowned in the tub as a teen while she took a brief nap. What could he say to curb venom like that? Nothing, and Porter absorbed every last bit until there was nothing left.

The creature chomped at the chicken breast and pulled it apart with a ravenous hunger until everything was gone.

“You’ve got some appetite, lil’ buddy,” Porter said, and opened the cupboards to try and find something else to feed it. All that remained was the unopened box of Rainb-O’s. He rattled the cardboard and the dinosaur tilted its head. Porter popped the top and poured into the ceramic bowl. The creature sniffed the sugary O’s, looked at Porter, and then slowly lapped up the bits with his dark tongue. It only made it halfway through before walking away from the bowl, back into the living room, and pushed himself against the heater.

“How about a bedtime story before the sun goes down?” Porter asked, watching the young dino give in to heavy eyelids and long, strained breath. He knew just the book, it had to be here still.

Upstairs in the closet tucked in the very back of a shelf was the picture book of predators, the thick and sticky pages the same as they ever were. He remembered nights going through the pictures watching his son’s wide-eyed wonder at sharks, and coyotes, and lycans, and felt the venomous sting of a used-to-be erode the sides of his heart.

Downstairs, he sat on the couch and whistled for the dinosaur. The creature lifted its head and walked with a sleepy limp over to Porter, who opened the picture book and read aloud the simple prose. With each picture he pointed to, the creature seemed to smile and drift further into the clutches of sleep, seemingly happy to hear the man’s voice.

*

Porter’s worry began to peak. The creature asleep at his feet sounded like it was having more trouble breathing, and it kept twitching with miniature seizures. He didn’t know if this was natural, or a cause for alarm, so he pulled the phone from his pocket and wondered if his son might take a call in the big city. Wondering things such things made him feel insignificant, burdensome, left behind.

“Hey Pops!” a voice answered, which startled Porter. He hadn’t been aware that he even dialed, and it sounded like his son was at a restaurant, or a bar, or out with friends being social.

“Hey Buddy, it’s your father,” Porter said.

“I know. Call ID. What’s up?”

Porter wasn’t sure where to start, or how to even ask. Stuttering through ideas, he blurted out the only thing that sounded plausible.

“What do you think about having a dinosaur as a pet?” he asked, and then held his breath for the reply.

“Nah, you don’t want a dino. They have to have their own feeding space because they need to eat live meals. Birds, goats, sheep. Lot’s of blood and entrails, pretty heavy cleanup. Only raw food. Their micro-gut biomes are so strong that cooked food doesn’t get transferred into nutrients and they’ll starve to death. No people food. It makes’em sick, like dogs and chocolate. A lot of work, too much work, Pops. Why? You, uh, you doing ok?”

“Oh yes, yes. Just daydreaming is all,” Porter said. Dread rose from his chest into his throat as the creature kicked out again, writhing in some sort of pain. Porter did what he could to mask the anxiety. “How did you get so smart, anyways?”

“Years of mom forcing me to read books about how bodies work. Go figure,” Buddy said. “Hey, can I call you back in the morning? The firm just got a grant and we’re out celebrating.”

“Of course, son. Sure thing,” Porter said, and wheezed out a half-hearted, lonely laugh.

He hung up the phone and bent over the creature. The skin didn’t feel right. He wasn’t sure what right should have felt like, but this wasn’t it. Dry, too dry, and far too warm in the head, while the yellow belly with red stripes felt too cool.

“Don’t do this to me,” Porter said. “Please, I’m doing the best I can.”

The creature opened its eyes and chirped, but it was a distant noise. The pupils irised like a dimming bulb.

“I didn’t know any better,” Porter said, taking the head into his arms and cradling. “I did the best I could with what I knew, with what I had! I’ll try harder, please!”

The dinosaur began to shake and froth. Porter couldn’t look away even though the sight physically pained him, this creature in so much helpless, needless pain. Had the little dinosaur been like this all summer? Slowly starving to death?

A rattle began in the creature’s chest, which forced the remaining air from its lungs like a tea kettle coming to boil. Porter physically felt the life inside the dinosaur diminish, and he broke down into tears.

“I could have done better, I wasn’t ready for you, but I’m thankful we had this. Know that I’m thankful we had this,” he said. A small spark of life came to the young dinosaur’s eye and for that brief moment, they saw each other in the cold room. Porter wasn’t sure how he knew, but he knew that dinosaur loved him in their short time together.

And then, as the sun dipped over the horizon, the remaining light turned to darkness, and Porter was alone.

*

Porter barely slept, if he even slept at all. After carrying the creature into the basement and deciding to bury it in the woods later, he couldn’t shake the image of the dinosaur’s last moments and how this all could have been prevented with a little attentiveness and research.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter wasn’t in the mood. Of course another bird had come. Of course.

Then he realized it wasn’t a knocking, but a ringing. His cell phone vibrated against the wooden night table with an incoming call from the town offices.

“Heyo, Porter, it’s Len from City Hall. I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“No,” Porter said, and sat up.

“Anywho, got a call from the Hartwells asking if we’d seen a small dinosaur. Said it escaped as they were packing up last month. I told’em you’d called with a sighting, and they said they’d swing by. Wanted to give warning.”

“Thanks Len,” Porter said.

“Ayuh,” Len said, and ended the call. The morning sun forced its way through the thin drapes with blinding reminders. It didn’t seem fair that days got to start and end.

Porter sat up and put on his flannel, the same as the day before, and noticed a few places where venomous phlegm has burned small holes through the fabric. He ran his thumb over them and felt the immediate, pressing absence of a used-to-be.

Work-boots on, he limped downstairs with cold and tired knees as a shining car with New York plates blasting loud, electronic music pulled up the drive. He saw a young man and woman in their early twenties in the front seat, dark sunglasses pulled over their eyes, hair styled like they had just come from a fashion magazine’s photo shoot.

“You the guy?” the woman asked as she stepped out of the car in high heels.

“Len said you’d seen our dinosaur. Tricky bugger snuck out while we loaded the car.”

“Over those dunes,” Porter said, pointing away from the house. “I was boarding up. Saw’em hiding near the beach.”

“Is he still there?”

Porter shrugged and shoved his aching hands into his pockets. The woman rolled her eyes and whispered to the guy that she couldn’t walk in the sand with heels, and that he should go, and that he better be quick because she wanted to get back to the city by nightfall.

“We have a buyer, you see,” the guy said. “Top dollar.”

Porter didn’t move as the Hartwell boy traipsed into the dunes and whistled, pushing aside long blades of grass to look for any sign of the creature. He walked near the beach, deep into the grass, and then back again before returning to the car.

“Anything?” Porter asked.

“It’s a baby, how far could it have gone?” the woman said, annoyed. She leaned against the car and scrolled through her phone.

“Maybe you should have kept a better eye on it,” Porter said. He took his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms.

“Excuse me?” the guy said and took off his sunglasses. He stepped into Porter’s personal bubble.

“You left this town two months ago. Never once came back looking. You can’t treat things that way, can’t abandon something just ‘cause you’re bored. You have to love it. You have to try at least and sometimes stand up for yourself, even when it’s hard, and you have to commit to working through tough times. Otherwise, anything that matters goes extinct and everyone ends up alone.”

“It’s just a dinosaur, dude,” the guy said. He held up his hands like he was trying to ward off a charging bull.

“Let’s just go,” the woman said. “We’ll tell Franco it was hit by a car or whatever.”

The woman opened the passenger door and sat down as the guy stomped around to the driver’s side cautiously eyeing Porter. At the end of the road, a familiar car turned into the drive. The car with New York plates turned around and sped out of the gravel drive as the other car—Buddy’s car—pulled in. Buddy parked and stepped out into the slowly warming day. He stood with large shoulders, a yellow and red striped sweater hugging his frame. Though he hadn’t been away in the city for too long, Porter couldn’t believe how much his boy had grown.

“Hey Pops,” Buddy said, holding an overnight bag. “What did those clowns want?”

“Something they shouldn’t have,” Porter said. “What’s the occasion?”

Buddy shrugged.

“Talking to you last night, I dunno, thought you might enjoy some company.”

Porter hugged his boy and welcomed him inside. With the wooden panels up along the porch wall, the inside felt cavernous and dark, but Buddy brought a certain light to the rooms that hadn’t existed in quite some time. They chatted in the kitchen about life in the city, about Porter’s move to the seasonal home, about the split with Minnie and how situations never stopped evolving.

“It’s good to see you, though,” Porter said after a while.

“No way, is that a box of Rainb-O’s? Haven’t had those in years. Don’t tell mum, but…” Buddy said.

“Say no more,” Porter said. He went into the cupboard and pulled out the recently-washed bamboo salad bowl.

“A growing boy needs his nutrition,” Porter said. Buddy sat at the kitchen table like a happy child while Porter popped the top of the cardboard cereal box. He poured the colorful O’s until the bowl had nearly filled and the box had all but emptied, and sat with his son in a warming house as daylight spilled through the cracks of the ancient wooden panels illuminating the presence of an always-will-be.

W. T. Paterson is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and is a graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 80 publications worldwide including The Saturday Evening Post, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Delhousie Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Fresh Ink. A semi-finalist in the Aura Estra short story contest, his work has also received notable accolades from Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Lumberloft. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to “Get down from there!”

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Transfer

February 5, 2021
tom

By Voyo Gabrilo

Little flecks of cheeseburger clung to Tom’s mustache as he stretched out, asleep, on the couch. The rest of the cheeseburger rested on his stomach, on top of the wrapper, and it fell to the floor once the phone rang.

“Y’ello,” he said, some of the cheeseburger sticking to the phone as he pressed it close to his mouth. “This is he… Of course, I understand… Thank you. I’m on my way… You have a good night as well.”

Tom was already half-dressed. His black slacks had a sandy appearance from the salty fries he had wolfed down on his way home earlier. He never cared for his cheeseburgers to be hot, but if the fries got cold, then they were history. He brushed his slacks until they recovered their blackness.

Before he made his way upstairs to get a clean shirt, he sat back on the couch. He picked up the cheeseburger from the floor, inspected it for hair or dust, then finished it. The cheese had hardened and got stuck in his throat. He needed something to drink.

On his way to the kitchen, Tom stepped on one of his kids’ nerf footballs and it caused him to lose balance and stub his toes on the piano. The piano had been there since before Tom’s wife, Peggy, moved out. It made itself house-inventory quietly.

There was not much left in the fridge. A couple of cans of beer. Tom reached for the last carton of milk instead. He stood a moment longer to see what he would need to buy on his way home, then went upstairs to get his clean shirt. He checked in on his twin boys, Rex and Royce, on his way back downstairs.

He looked around to see if he was missing anything when his eyes found the drink that came with his cheeseburger and fries. He rubbed his eyes, then took the drink with him and left, making sure to leave the sign on the inside door handle for the boys.

“Can I help you?” the receptionist at Regional Oaks Care asked Tom as he entered the facility.

“Yes, hello, I’m Tom Jacobs with Fitzgerald-Hill Funeral Homes,” Tom said.

“Oh, yes. Thank you for getting here so quickly. Ms. Hamps is in room G-11. So that’s this wing down this way. If you’d like to pull your car around that way, it’ll be easier access to her room.”

“Yes, thank you. Should I meet you…?”

“Yes, of course. I’ll call for someone to open the door and meet you outside there.”

“Thank you.”

The receptionist mimed ‘thank you’ with her lips and sat back down. Tom paused for a moment to get his bearings. He had been to Regional Oaks Care before, during the daytime. Now, at night, half the lights were turned off and the halls were empty.

Tom backed his van just up to the east entrance. The door was locked. He went back in the van to doze off before someone came and opened the door.

“Hello, sir,” a nurse said as Tom got out of the van.

“Hello. It’ll be just a moment.” Tom started getting out the cot from the back of the van. The nurse waited just inside the east entrance doors until Tom was ready, when she unlocked the doors and opened them.

“Thank you,” Tom said as he passed her, pushing the cart inside.

“You’ll turn left up ahead,” said the nurse, letting the doors close behind her as she followed Tom.

Room G-11 was four rooms down the hallway. Tom found the family inside, huddled together around the bed. One of the cot’s wheels squeaked as he brought it to a stop. The family turned and looked at Tom. The nurse made her way inside the room.

No one spoke for a couple of minutes. Tom bowed his head. He liked to give the families as much time as they needed. After some more time passed the family began to move slowly away from the bed. They whispered goodbye and some blew soft kisses to the newly departed.

They all left the room in single file, looking back at the bed. The nurse walked back in after having stepped out to let the family out. She asked Tom if he needed any assistance and left when he said no.

Tom paused to look at Ms. Hamps. She had a nightcap on top of her head that matched her beige gown. There were too many lines on her face to count and her neck had already turned grey. Tom unfolded the blanket from on top of Ms. Hamps and gently pushed her arms to her sides.

He moved the cot to the side of the bed. He looked over his shoulder and saw the family huddled together outside the door in the hallway. They peered into the room. Tom shuffled along the floor and closed the door, bowing his head to the family.

The cot had moved away from the bed while Tom went to close the door. The wheel that squeaked wasn’t locked properly and began to rattle as Tom moved it back to beside the bed. After another couple attempts, Tom took a tissue from the nightstand and placed it underneath the squeaky wheel that wouldn’t stay put.

Tom got Ms. Hamps onto the cot in one movement. He folded the blanket back over the now-empty bed and pushed the cot out of the room. The family inquired where Tom would be taking their loved one. Tom replied that she would be well taken care of at the chapel and that he would contact them in the morning after everyone’s had a night of rest.

“There Stands The Glass” was playing on the radio as Tom turned the van out of Regional Oaks Care and onto the road. Fitzgerald-Hill was a five-mile ride directly down the road. Tom looked out his rearview mirror to see if the family would follow him. When he saw that no one had followed him out of Regional Oaks Care, he turned the song louder.

He widened his eyes, lit a cigarette, and opened his window to let the early-morning breeze hit his face. It was still dark outside that headlights were needed. The road was uneven and Tom relied on his lights frequently so that he could swerve around a pothole or slow down when a squirrel presented herself in the van’s path.

Just as he pulled into the Fitzgerald-Hill parking lot, Tom lit a second cigarette. He parked the van in its spot, around the chapel’s entrance, let it idle, and continued to smoke. The sun faintly began its rise. Tom sat up straighter to look at himself in the rearview mirror. He played with the bags under his eyes, poking at them like they were filled with fluid. The smoke that emanated from his cigarette carried up to his eyes as he peered into the mirror and they began to redden; he squinted in order to continue to peer.

Checking his watch, Tom lit a third cigarette.

“You’re the lucky one,” Tom said. He looked into the rearview mirror once more, only this time his gaze was turned to the back.

He dropped the third cigarette into his drink and listened for the fizz. Then he got out of the van and wheeled the cot into the chapel.

~

Eight days after Tom did Ms. Hamps’s transfer, the family sent an eloquent letter to the funeral home relaying their gratitude for “the respectfulness that exuded from Mr. Jacobs.” When Louis Fitzgerald III, the grandson of the funeral home’s co-founder, read the letter aloud to everyone in the chapel—everyone being only Tom in addition to Nancy, the only other director besides Tom who was not an owner, and the receptionist—Tom didn’t move a muscle. Fitzgerald-Hill had received innumerable letters of the kind, and Tom was a non-fussy man.

“‘Furthermore,’” Louis continued reading, “‘we wish to request the services of Mr. Jacobs should our beloved father meet the same fate as our mother. He is, like our mother, ill and his time left with us is sadly coming to a close. We sincerely hope that Mr. Jacobs will endeavor to oblige us with his graceful attendance.’”

“Looks like you’ve got yourself a fan base,” Nancy said once Louis finished.

“Put it with the collection,” Louis said, handing Tom the letter.

Tom smiled and pocketed it. It would be shredded, like the rest of them, once he got home.

“You know, I’d really like to do a transfer with you one of these nights,” Nancy said. “All of your letters come from overnight transfers. You’re a real midnight magician. What do you do, make love to the bodies so that they look like they’ve had a good lay once they’re coffined?”

“Sorry, Nancy,” Louis said, “but we don’t need two of you on overnights.”

“You’re more than welcome to take the overnights,” Tom said.

“And leave the busy daytime?” Nancy asked, spreading her arms out across the empty room.

“Tom, don’t even think like that,” Louis said, getting serious. “You’re my overnight man. That’s you, Tom.”

Tom smiled. His stomach began to rumble and he excused himself for lunch.

On his way to the diner that had the golden pancakes he liked, Tom’s phone rang. He almost capsized his car retrieving the phone from his breast pocket.

“Y’ello,” he said, managing to touch the button and put the phone on speaker just before it slipped from his hand and fell on the passenger’s seat. “This is Tom Jacobs … Who is this? … Oh, yes, yes. How are you? … She what? … I see … Yes, I will come immediately. Thank you for informing me.”

When he arrived at the hospital, he had to circle around a couple of times after forgetting he was not there on a transfer. He had to park in a spot and walk in through the entrance.

The emergency room was hardly occupied. A woman and her daughter sat in a corner, with the daughter’s arm in a makeshift sling. There was a man standing by the entrance, swaying back and forth as if in prayer. Tom sidestepped the praying man on his way to the desk.

“I’m here to see Peggy Jacobs,” he said to the man behind the desk.

“Relation?”

“I’m her husband,” Tom said, looking over the counter.

The man looked at his computer for a minute more before turning back to Tom.

“Please have a seat, sir. Someone will call you in a moment.”

Tom decided to stand, but away from the praying man. He moved across the waiting room, closer to the woman and her daughter.

When after ten minutes his name had not been called, Tom went back to the desk.

“Do you know how much longer it will be?” he asked.

But before the man could answer, the doors to the corridor opened and a woman came out in a hurry toward Tom.

“Dolores, where is she?” asked Tom.

“It’s okay, I can take him back with me,” Dolores said to the man behind the desk, before turning to Tom. She didn’t wait for an answer; she grabbed Tom by the arm and dragged him through the doors.

Tom had to pick his feet up quicker as Dolores clutched his arm and led him down the corridor. They mostly passed vacant rooms, save for one that had a man keeled over on the floor next to his bed. Tom slowed down a bit as they passed the man’s room to get a better look, but Dolores pulled him forward.

As they approached the second-to-last room on the left, Tom’s stomach rumbled like thunder. He had skipped breakfast when he discovered his sons had eaten the last of his favorite breakfast pastries. They had been out of eggs for days, and he hadn’t found the time to restock, so he allowed Rex and Royce to each have a pastry, which had quickly turned into them finishing the rest.

“Before we go in there,” Dolores said—she positioned herself in between Tom and the doorway—“I need you to be calm. She has been heavily sedated and is just coming back to, so arguments or the like won’t help her at all.”

“I understand.”

Dolores stepped to the side and let Tom go in first. He brushed past the curtain that was covering the doorway, followed by Dolores.

The room was cold and bare. There was a harsh white light that illuminated only half of the room. The bed was in the corner off from the door, and the machines next to it were all working rhythmically.

Tom walked to the bed. Peggy’s eyes were closed. Her stomach rose and fell with her breath, and Tom stared there for several minutes. Dolores stood by the door and watched.

“How did you get notified?” Tom asked Dolores, without looking away from Peggy’s stomach.

“The police picked her up. Luckily she hadn’t taken her wristband off yet and they were able to identify her and call us right away.”

“She still smells like alcohol,” Tom said, turning around and walking to the door.

“I heard that.”

Tom turned back round. Peggy had opened her eyes and was staring up at the ceiling.

“It’s fine. You can go,” Peggy said to the ceiling.

“I’m going to find the doctor,” Dolores said in a hushed voice to Tom.

After she disappeared behind the doorway curtain, Tom walked to the side of the bed. The machines were louder than before. Tom looked down at Peggy. The space around her eyes were a dull grey, and her short hair looked uneven to Tom.

“What happened to your hair?” he asked, still looking at it.

“Do you like it?” Peggy laughed which quickly turned into a cough. “I did it the other day. Was getting sick of my goldielocks.”

Tom looked at Peggy’s arm. The veins were all protruding and several of them were stuck with I.V.s.

“Okay, Tom. You can tell I’m fine. I didn’t die, yet. So will you just leave now. I’m pretty wiped out from all this.”

Peggy turned on her side away from Tom.

“Can’t you just tell me what happened?” he asked.

“What difference does it make?” Peggy responded, back still to Tom. “It’s the same song and dance anyway, Tom. Don’t worry, I’m going back to the center. It’s safest there anyway.”

“Safest there? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’ll be safe from myself, you know.”

Tom almost walked around the bed to see if Peggy had rolled her eyes.

“Peggy,” Tom began, but Peggy had turned around and stopped him with a glare.

“Don’t you ‘Peggy’ me, Tom,” Peggy said with as much energy as one could muster after having been on a bender and having her stomach pumped clean. “I’m a grown woman. I can handle my mistakes on my own. I don’t need you condescending to help.”

“I’m not condescending. I care about you, Peggy. You’re Rex and Royce’s mother—”

“—Stop it! Don’t say their names. Don’t even bring them in here now.”

Peggy turned back around away from Tom. The mass of tubes that stemmed from her forearm turned with her, and Tom watched the machines slide across the floor.

“I just want you to get help,” Tom said and turned for the door. He waited a moment for Peggy to reply, but when she began to breathe heavily, he walked out.

~

Rex and Royce were playing shoot-em up games in the living room when Tom got the call. It was for a transfer up near the county border, about eighty miles. He told the boys he would be gone for several hours, and that they had better be asleep when he got home.

The transfer was for a Mr. Staed who had died while resting in his home. Tom had gone to school with a Jack Staed and wondered if that could be his father. But it was only a glancing thought.

Tom found out it was Jack Staed’s father. Jack came out to the van as Tom pulled into the driveway. They exchanged nods and Tom unloaded the cot. Jack went back inside and Tom followed.

The deceased’s wife was waiting for them inside. She was kneeling on the floor praying near Mr. Staed’s body, which was lying on the bed near the home’s central piece, the piano. Tom looked around momentarily. It seemed Mr. Staed had been dying for some time. Tom pushed the cot beside the bed.

Jack moved to help Tom, but Tom gestured that it was all under control. Tom saw that Jack’s eyes were bloodshot. Jack stepped back, almost bowing. Mrs. Staed got up from her knees gingerly. She leaned on the piano bench, rolled her torso with her straightening leg, then heaved to a stand. She disappeared into another room.

Tom hesitated another moment. He glanced from Mr. Staed to Jack. There was a resemblance but it wasn’t loud. Tom folded his arms in front of him. Jack bowed his head and left the room, following his mother. Tom unfolded the blanket from on top of Mr. Staed and gently pushed his arms to his sides.

Tom got Mr. Staed onto the cot in one movement. He folded the blanket back over the now-empty bed and pushed the cot out of the room, out of the house, and into the back of the van. Jack came outside. They shook hands.

On the way to the chapel, it crossed Tom’s mind whether Jack knew who he was or not. In the end, it mattered little. Tom’s stomach growled. He turned off the expressway when the sign showed a food stop. He had planned to buy the twins a treat since he knew they wouldn’t be asleep, but it was still too far away from home. But he could eat twice. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast, which was only a granola bar.

He ordered a couple value meals. He finished the first one just as he arrived at the chapel. There were shreds of lettuce and some tomato seeds that fell from his pants as he got out of the van. He stopped in his tracks. There was a light on in the chapel.

Tom left Mr. Staed in the van and went in the chapel alone. Louis and Nancy were walking around the chapel. Louis was counting the chairs that were laid out for the next day’s service. Nancy was taking note of everything on a legal pad. Tom coughed audibly and Louis and Nancy froze.

“Oh. Tom,” Louis said.

Tom looked to Nancy. She looked back at him. Tom was immediately startled. Nancy’s eyes were bloodshot in the same way Jack’s had been earlier. Tom looked back to Louis. His eyes were white.

“I put a pot of coffee on. I think I hear it,” Nancy said.

Tom didn’t hear anything. He watched Nancy leave the chapel for the back office.

“I’ve got a transfer in the van,” Tom said.

“Bring it in. Bring it in. I’ll help you with it.” Louis shook his head vehemently.

Tom walked out of the chapel, turning his head a couple of times back at Louis. He unloaded the cot from the van and wheeled it in. Louis was waiting at the door. He held it open for Tom and nodded as Tom walked by into the chapel.

As soon as they were both inside, Tom stopped pushing the cot.

“Alright, what’s going on?” he asked Louis.

Louis closed his eyes for a long moment. Tom’s stomach growled, but Louis didn’t flinch. Tom wondered how he could still be hungry. He was about to go back to the van for his second value meal when Nancy came back into the chapel with the coffee on a tray.

“Great! The coffee!” Louis said. “Let’s have a seat and some coffee and talk.”

Nancy poured the three of them coffee.

“Look, Tom,” Louis said. He mixed some milk into his coffee and licked the stirrer before putting it down. “We just got a call for another transfer, but I’ve decided to call Nancy in to do this one.”

“Okay…” Tom looked to Mr. Staed. He should have put him away and not left him in the middle of the chapel.

Louis drank his coffee.

“I should get going on the…on the transfer,” Nancy said, standing.

“No!” Louis nearly spilled his coffee. “I mean, um, you can’t leave just yet. Let’s finish the coffee you just made. The transfer is just across town.”

“If it’s local, why did you call Nancy in? I would’ve finished in time to get a second one done,” Tom asked.

Nancy sat back down. She looked at Louis as if she was waiting for him to speak. Louis was only interested in his coffee. Tom decided to put Mr. Staed away. Whatever was so secretive could wait just a little more to be told.

“Tom,” Louis put his coffee down and looked Tom in the eyes, “the reason Nancy is going to do this transfer is because I got a call earlier that something terrible happened to Peggy.”

Tom, who had been standing, nearly fell as his knees gave way. Nancy helped him back into his seat. She shook her head at Louis as Tom was staring at the velvet-covered bier at the front of the chapel.

“I understand,” Tom said. He stood, went to the cot, and pushed Mr. Staed out of the room.

“Where’d he go?” Louis asked, then got up to follow Tom, but Nancy grabbed him.

“Let him be for a minute, will you.” She shook her head again. “It can’t be easy for him to find out like this.”

“You think this is easy for me?” Louis asked.

“This isn’t about you, buddy,” Nancy said. She was about to say more, but Tom walked back into the room, pushing the cot.

“I’d like to do the transfer,” he said. Tom looked again at Nancy. Her eyes had cleared some, but not completely. Then, looking at Louis, who again had interested himself in his coffee, Tom said again, “I’d like to do the transfer.”

Louis looked up at Tom from his coffee and nodded slowly. Tom nodded back, then moved his nod across the room. The chapel felt dead for the first time.

~

Tom sat in the first row of the chapel for the first time at the service. Rex sat next to him, and next to Rex was Royce. Peggy’s parents sat behind them, and when it came time for anyone who had a remembrance of Peggy to speak, the parents of the deceased would mutter to themselves the question Tom had heard muttered during all the services he worked: why.

The cemetery was on the town’s west-end. They drove through town, and Tom looked at the back of the hearse. He tried to spot some scratches he knew to be on the bumper, but it was too far and moving.

The procession of cars didn’t take very long to all get into the cemetery. Peggy’s plot was on the second piece of land over from the entrance. Tom recalled Louis saying his family had plots on the same piece of land.

Tom stayed silent graveside, like everyone else. All was said that could be at the chapel. The opened earth, where Peggy would descend, was enough talking.

Voyo Gabrilo is a writer at the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and novellas.

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We love this book for so many reasons! The writing is incredible, the story is important, and seeing what life looks like when you survive the unthinkable is transformative. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Sanctuary, by Emily Rapp Black. Purchase at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Not Down this Road

January 29, 2021
water

By Jack Clinton

Although she said she didn’t approve, Anita was there on the dock, in the grey light, slipping a touring kayak into the green water, loading it with a fly rod and bags.  She like the richness of estuaries, so she didn’t complain, and it was not like there was a morning chill. It was tropical, and the cool of dawn was the only reasonable time of day.

Anita had her binoculars in hopes of spying rare birds flying out to hunt.   Always the dedicated husband, Tom watched birds with her for a few days, excited that she had seen some rare species like the roseate spoonbill and the anhinga, the snakebird.  He was glad she had seen them, and enjoyed birding with her.  But, he wanted more of a conquest than birding, so he came looking for game fish.  He wanted either tarpon or snook, and he had hooked both, but none were quite right— too small, or too many spectators.

“Well, that’s fine,” she said.  “It will give us another day.  I believe there are night herons in the mangroves and I want to be sure they’re not bitterns.”

“No hurry,” he said,  “The fishing is good, and all this takes time.”

“I know he’s an old friend, but Charlie isn’t stringing you along?”

“No, he has all the money he’s going to get.  He’s no choirboy, but he does what he says he’ll do. He told me to get my cast together, or he’d dump me and return the money.”

Anita gave her thoughtful grunt and said, “Well, you trust him, and I trust you.”

“You won’t lose the house to him.”

Anita snapped her head to retort, but it never left her lips. Instead, they stood quietly, one leaning against other in their identical sun shirts and broad-brimmed hats, turning as they heard the boat.  Tom could see it through the morning mist, running without lights. Charlie stood in the tiny cockpit, and Andy on the bow with a short bight of rope in his hands, surly, with a cigarette in his mouth. Charlie was Andy’s antithesis, with a warm smile, bright blue eyes beaming in the haze, saluting with a traveler of coffee in his free hand.

Charlie made eye contact with Anita, and she held his gaze as he brought his skiff to dock, both nodding mutually.  Andy looped the pier deftly and cinched the boat in smoothly.

“Tom?” She said with a catch.

“I know,” he said. “I know… all the discussions are done.” His voice hitched.

Tom kissed her, Anita clung for a moment, then he was aboard. The line slipped free, and they headed out with the tide.  Tom waved and put one palm to his heart.

“Tom,” Charlie shouted above the engine, “we’re going to the edge of the mangroves, the small barrier islands to fish for snook in the backwater.  We’ll only have an hour or two before the sun’s too high. Then we’ll probably go for tarpon along the drop-offs and flats, or we’ll go look for baits further outside.”

Tom knew it’d be a while, and so he took a seat out of the wind, on the cushioned bench behind the helm.  Andy was already in the bow working on the leaders and tippets for the quiver of fly rods. When he was done, he reverently slipped each rod in the plastic tubes fixed to the squat spotting tower above the cockpit.  Charlie was an excellent Capitan, and his boat was spotless and his gear very good.  Tom had seen better, but every piece of Charlie’s equipment simply fulfilled its function.

Tom watched the birds along the tidal river, wishing Anita could see them.  Egrets and herons rose from their roosts in the mangroves, and he saw an enormous wood stork and petite ibis pecking for fiddler crabs in the tidal mud.  Occasionally, quick clouds of gulls, terns, and pelicans dove for pods of baitfish that leapt and skittered across the swirling water.  Charlie pointed at the activity and shouted, “It’ll be a good day.”

As the boat ride lengthened, Tom remembered similar rides in his dad’s open skiffs, out where feeding fish sent anchovies and silversides leaping into the beaks of wheeling birds. His father was from a commercial fishing family in Maine, but he had come south after earning a degree in engineering. His mother had his sister, Cloe, but Tom was forever his father’s accomplice. He often worked with his father, rebuilding and selling used boats or painting houses. Tom loved listening to his father’s lively banter while bartering for parts and prime boat lumber, his father squeezing every dime when he found himself between jobs.

Whether in New York or Delaware, they always lived within a few blocks of docks or piers, where Tom grew up renovating and maintaining their modest sailboats and fishing skiffs. He waited all spring and early summer, watching for shivering skitters of bait fish on the glassy surface of the estuaries. He listened to fishing reports and harbor gossip for news of bluefish and striped bass coming close to shore.  That was the only time his dad would be “sick” from work, or even quit one job for the uncertain prospects of another.  Tom and his dad would always be there though, out with the frenzied shoals, in screaming clouds of herring gulls, casting plugs and live baits into the swirls of blues and stripers.

 

“Here,” Charlie said, rousing Tom blinking from his reveries.  “This is a good island. Cast along the current and then strip it through the dead backwater.  Let it sink to the dark blue.”  Tom could see it was good water.  His father would have been magnetically pulled here from miles away.  “Fishy water,” his father called it.

Andy passed the rod to Charlie, who inspected the leader and tippet rig, nodded and passed it to Tom.  “This is the place.”

Tom stretched as he clambered to the front of the boat and took his place on the casting platform.  Andy had tied on a standard streamer, green on top, white on the bottom, long and weighty.  He flipped the streamer forward and paid out a length of line, made a few false casts until he could feel the flex and action of the rod. He shot the streamer out to the nearer end of the current, stripped in a few feet of line then made a longer cast to the point of mangroves.  He saw a flash on one retrieve and then hooked up on the next.  It was a good fish.  He played it, and Charlie laughed, “This is gonna be a day.”

Tom brought a nice amberjack to the side of the boat.  Andy was there with his pliers and tugged to hook free and the fish disappeared into the deep blue.

“Good fish. Maybe we’ll keep a bigger one,” Andy said, slapping him on the shoulder.

“Good fish, Tom,” Charlie repeated, “a bit deeper on the retrieve.  The snook will already be looking for darker water.”

Tom worked the eddy line, letting his fly drift deeper before his retrieve.

He caught a small snook after a few more casts and then the water went dead.

They wasted no time pulling the anchor, motoring off to find another island with swirling waters and a good drop.

“The last hurricane really carved up these islands and dug some good trenches,” Charlie said.  “The island ahead was cut completely in half.  I’ve never fished it, but I noticed there’s deeper water. Sit and relax until we’re there.”

“It’s all good to me,” Tom said with his toothy grin.

They swung in downstream, and Charlie quietly dropped anchor, letting the skiff drift while Tom took his stance on the deck. Charlie hand-hauled the boat up the anchor line until they were within casting distance.  On Tom’s second cast he was into a great fish. Charlie and Andy were there beside him. “This is it, Andy, this is the one. Easy Tom, play him, let him run, use the rod, give him line! He’s heading to open water.”

Charlie pulled up the anchor to follow the fish.  Andy hung close behind Tom.

The snook came to the surface twice and they could all clearly see its great size. “I’m saying fifteen pounds!”  Andy spoke into Tom’s ear.

“It’ll do,” Tom shouted over his shoulder.

Charlie had his eyes on Andy.  “Lower the transom deck, “ he said with an air of gravity.  The fish was in the air once more, throwing spray across the sun, as Andy unfolded a tiny platform off the stern so Tom could bring his catch to hand.

A motor roared out in the glare of the morning sun, and shouting came from the starboard side. A rabble of tourists gave hoots and thumbs up from the deck of a bouncing charter heading to the deep water outside the islands.

Charlie and Andy rose from their crouched positions, shocked to have missed the motor in the silent morning.

“That’s it, Andy… That’s it…  We’ll go for another fish a little farther out.”

Tom was still whooping, lost in his moment as he stood on the transom platform, water sloshing up over his canvas shoes.

“Jesus,” Charlie said.  “That’s a big damn snook.”

“I haven’t seen many bigger,” Andy said, handing Tom his skinny hook pliers.

Charlie quietly supervised as Tom brought it to hand and worked the hook free,  stnding aglow in the early sun as the fish swam lazily away, stunned from the exertion it spent.

“That was perfect, just perfect,” Charlie said shaking his head.

“Charters,” Andy grumbled.

Tom turned, smiling, “No worries Boys, it’ll be a good day.”

 

Tom had turned pale from the exertion, sweat beaded on his brow and ran from his temples.

“Take some shade, Tom, there’s water in the cooler — eat some fruit.” Charlie moved to his side. “Easy,” he said with a hand on Tom’s elbow, “you gotta last all day.”

“Sure, I’ll take some shade,” he said to quietly to himself, ducking under the canopy, handing the rod to Andy.

Tom sat and thought of Anita and his father as the boat skimmed and bounced on the open water.  His father would’ve liked the diversity of the fish and birds, and the topography of the water.  The New England coast was so limited, and the fish were either Blues or Stripers, and the birds were either gulls or terns, and they never expected anything different.  But when surprised by the occasional heron or ibis, his father would stop and look up reverently, “Will you look at that, Tom! I’ve never seen one of those around here.”  That was the last thing his father said to him in the hospital, looking up from a nest of tubes and wires that sucked away his life, his savings, his house, and dignity.  “Will you look at that!” his father said.

That was the same fatal day his father told him, “I wouldn’t go if I were you Tommy, not down this road.” And then — like father, like son, there he was, fifteen years later, with his father’s cancer.

Instead of hospice, Tom was riding along on the deck of a small skiff, hiding from the sun, waiting for the next patch of good water.  He reached for his insulated lunch bag, resting its coolness in his lap. He pulled out the ice pack and settled it against his stomach for relief, and opened his pill organizer, swallowing a few of each.  Anita would be watching and counting if she were there.  Andy eyed the box hungrily, and Tom gave him one of the big, powerful painkillers, which Andy swiftly stashed in his shirt pocket.  A moment later Charlie was looking over his shoulder from the wheel.  “Go easy, Tom.  Don’t get goofy on me now.  There’s still a lot of water ahead.”

“Just staying even, Charlie.”

“Good.  Stay cool and drink water – A breeze will come up soon, maybe some cloud cover later on.  It’ll be cooler outside the shoals and mangroves.”

“Why are we going outside?”

“Because there’s good baits and birds.  Plus, the fish outside won’t be as picky as tarpon and snook.  Andy and I are gonna bottom fish a bit, put some in the hold to sell.”

“It’s all good.”

“The rods are all strung up, just stay cool till we find a good patch of water.”

Andy stood on the bow with binoculars in hand, watching intently, and then went up the tower.  He shouted down to Charlie, and the boat swung hard to the north.  Tom could tell it was north, even with his eyes closed.  He could feel the angle of the swells, the angle of the wind, and the angle of the sun.  All of them said north.

“Ok, Tommy boy, this is you!  They’re skipping on the waves!”

Tom opened his eyes and stood too quickly.   He swooned and staggered, falling hard against the hold.  Andy was there, concerned with the tumble.  Tom felt the sweat on his brow, and he saw blood on his knuckles.

“Give me a second.  I just got up too quick.”

Andy held Tom’s belt as he washed the blood from his hands in the sea, and splashed water on his face.  Tom focused on the water and saw the seabirds screaming and plummeting to the sea.  Pelicans dove off the bow and terns plucked smaller baits right off the surface.

Charlie was beside him on the deck, pushing the rod into his hands.  “This won’t last all day, Tom.  Come on, just start casting! Were right in the middle of ‘em!”

Tom was surprised by the size of the swells and the deep blue of the water. He was amazed at the boiling, slapping and snapping as larger fish pushed baits up into the mouths of waiting birds.  A large fish randomly launched into the air and cart-wheeled head over tail across the waves.

Tom was casting and Charlie yelled at him to keep it away from the birds.  He landed the streamer at the edge of the boiling water and felt the shuddering surge of a striking fish, and there was a tuna skipping across the water.

“Ho, ya got a Tunny.  Yeah, that’ll keep ya busy for a while.”  Andy shouted above the screech of the birds and the whine of the reel.   Charlie pursued the fish with the boat, careful not to crowd the feeding school.

Tom swooned with nausea in the open sun; its rays pierced him through and through, but fighting the fish was like holding on to lightning. He could feel every pulse of its tail and every thrust of its fins.  Tom shouted and whooped every time it came up tail-walking across the waves.

The birds had attracted other skiffs, and Charlie grew morose watching them approach.  They landed the fish and Tom gave his consent to have it dumped in the hold.  “Release three, keep one, that’s not bad.  That’s a bonito!  It’ll sell and keep Andy in beers tonight.” Charlie winked.

He took the rod from Tom and sent him to the shade of the cockpit.  Andy stowed the rod in a tube and they headed off away from the crowd.  When they found some space to themselves, Charlie anchored in deep water and handed out sandwiches and chilled fruit from the cooler. Andy bottom fished for a couple of hours, filling the hold with a grouper and several large snapper, which made them happy.  “That’ll all sell well,” Charlie said.

 

The sun was now in the west and Charlie stood on the tower.  “Birds are all gone.”  He said, lowering his binoculars.  “Those damn charters are just thick today.”

“I thought that bonito was it,” Tom said, standing, stretching, feeling better after food, rest and water.

Charlie and Andy looked at each other, considering his words.

“Well, let’s head back to the islands to fish the evening.”

Tom went up to sit in the cool wind of the tower, watching for dolphins and sea turtles as they plowed the chop on their way back towards shore.  He wondered where Anita had gone and worried if she had found any shade in the heat of the day.  Tom closed his eyes and pretended that his father was at the helm.  He thought of the white yarn and Christmas tinsel streamers his dad had tied to troll for the smaller blues that came up into the estuaries.

He remembered his dad standing on a skiff’s bench seat, telling Tom to take the helm while he fought a huge striped bass, the thick rod doubled to the water, the wind in his hair, flapping his shirt. “Come on Tom, we gotta chase this one!”

As they neared the green islands, Tom came down from the tower and took up his rod.  He looked at the tippet and the knot attaching the streamer.  He ran the line through his fingers to feel for nicks or abrasions.  He was happy with it and had finally shaken the residual miasma from his last chemo treatment.

“Tom, we’re gonna on keep moving.  I’ll pull within casting distance of the mangroves and let the engine idle as we drift by.  You know the water you want.  If you don’t get anything in a couple of casts, we’ll move on.”

He had good sea legs and cast well at any water that appeared to hold fish.

At the third island, he hooked a great snook and worked hard to keep it from tangling in the oyster-crusted mangroves, then it ran with the reel screaming.  Andy ran up into the tower and Charlie put a hand on his shoulder, “This is it, Tom, this is the one.”

“I know,” Tom laughed, “I know it is, Charlie.”

Tom whooped as the fish dove; the tip of the impossibly long rod dipped to the waves. “Let it be the last.” He laughed between deep breaths, “My arms are tired. My legs are tired.  I’m tired.”

“How is it out there Andy?”

“Were good!”

“Well, Tom, this is all you,” Charlie said dropping the small transom deck.

“Yes, this is me,” Tom said, but he wasn’t listening.  He had the reel resting in the palm of his hand, breaking against the long, steady runs, laughing like a child at the wild tail-walking leaps.

The fish turned and headed back to the Mangroves.  Tom held the rod high and palmed the reel hard to stop the run.

Finally, from the transom deck, he knelt panting and sighing beside the exhausted fish and he slid his hand under it.  He guessed that it was twenty pounds.  He got his hand firmly on its lower lip and pried up a bit to paralyze it while he freed the hook.  Some baits shimmered on the surface a few feet away and a tern floated just above the water to pick at them.  “Will you look at that!”

The two quick pops of Andy’s .22 were no louder than firecrackers snapping at the endless, darkening sea.  Tom floated face down in the water, a rose-colored halo spreading out from his gray hair.  Charlie hooked his belt with the fish gaff.  “That was great, Andy.  That was perfect.”

Andy flung the small, black pistol out into the blue water and then slid out of his t-shirt and deck shoes, dropping quickly into the warm water with a length of netting in his hands.  He wrapped Tom in it and cinched it down with short cords he had clenched in his teeth. Charlie fed Andy a length of heavy chain, to wind tightly around Tom’s waist, passing it tightly through loops of netting.  He pulled the last few inches snug and fixed it to a middle link with a length of wire. Then Charlie handed down an old thirty-pound anchor, which Andy fixed to the chain.

He hauled himself up back on the transom deck as Charlie pulled the body tight to the skiff with the fish gaff.  “Good job, Andy. Nice work.  That’s how it has to happen.”

“I know. That tern, just hovering right beside him…, kinda religious.”

“Could’a been,” Charlie said, passing the gaff to Andy.  “Hold him alongside ‘til we get into to the current of the trench.”

Andy nodded and surveyed the empty horizon, looking into the low, western sun, wondering if it had ever seemed so encompassing.  Charlie eased the boat until it caught the current of the green water and then into deep, deep blue, well past the tidal cut. Charlie nodded and Andy slipped the gaff from the netting.  Tom sank quickly in a subtle spiral, losing color and then definition, disappearing into the depths.

Andy held Charlie by the shoulder as he raised the transom deck.  Charlie nodded and crossed himself and then swung a bucket into the sea to swab the decks.

 

They motored up the tidal river until they reached the mangrove bay to pick up Anita who was sat unmoving in Tom’s sea kayak.  She stared straight ahead as they pulled alongside.  Andy dropped the transom deck and helped her aboard.  Her legs were stiff as she struggled while climbing over the stern.  “I had to wait quite a while.” She fought to control her voice.

“I know.  I ‘m sorry, Anita,” Andy said.  “It just takes as long as it takes.”

She patted his hand, which was still linked through her arm.

“It was beautiful, Anita.” Charlie said. “It might have been the best thing we’ve ever done.”

“I know that Charlie – I know that.  I know that it happened just then… Tom trusted you, and considered you a good friend.”

Charlie nodded silently, his forehead furrowed.  Andy looked west at the gold edge to the purple clouds.

She squeezed Andy’s hand at her elbow. “Thank you, Andy. You were so patient.”

“It was a pleasure Anita,” he looked timidly down at the water, avoiding her eyes.

 

The motor purred along at slightly more than an idle, moving the boat quietly, without running lights, towing the kayak to the drift of the falling tide. Andy tangled the fly line to a tiny deck cleat and dropped the rod in the cockpit with Tom’s life vest.  Anita took a vial of painkillers from Tom’s insulated bag and handed them to Andy, who then cinched the pack down to the kayak’s tiny cargo deck.  They considered the tiny boat for a moment, as if it were a manifestation of Tom. Charlie flipped it and let go of the line, letting the current take it to open water.

“Now I have to report him missing,” Anita sobbed a few times and wiped her eyes. “I have to go back home without him.”

After a long silence, she said, “I would like to see the colonies of glossy ibis some time.” Anita was nodding her head to agree with herself.  “Charlie,” she said, fixing his gaze, “I would like to see them come in to roost. If I were sick, you would take me? Would you do the same for me?”

“Of course, if there is the need,” Charlie said nodding. “When you call.”

Jack Clinton lives in Montana. He has written on environmental issues and has also on two fiction awards at a state level. Jack published my first novel, Clovis, which won the best LBGTQ novel at The American Book Fest.

 

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